Point of No Return: Capitals chasing away ghosts during run

The National Hockey League welcomed the fledgling Washington Capitals into their family in the 1974-75 season. The team was placed in the Norris Division, as part of the Wales Conference, and my father took me to the old Capital Center for several games that inaugural season.

As a 5-year-old boy, the action of hockey was intoxicating, as was the crowd-pumping organ music. I didn’t understand the nuances of the game, or even the most elementary basics, but watching the fluidity in which the players skated and feeling the ground shake beneath my feet when the players would crash into the walls would leave me in a near-hypnotic state — only snapping out of it when a fight would bring out the primal instincts of the beer-muscled fans around us, or the blare of a horn would alert the masses that a goal had been scored.

And, yeah, that horn blew a lot that season. Just not very often due to the Capitals’ offense.

Somehow, the Caps managed to win eight games that year. To their credit, they also finished five more games in a tie. That’s 13 games they didn’t lose. That being said, there were 67 games that they did indeed lose. The next year, the Caps were much improved, finishing with 11 wins and 59 losses, to go along with 10 ties. Still putrid, but a little less so, right?

Those early teams were rough, but they earned a lifetime fan in me. My first favorite player was a left-winger by the name of Garnet “Ace” Bailey. It was not because of any wizardry Bailey displayed on the ice as much as it was due to him going by the name “Ace.” That just seemed pretty cool to me at the time. 

As a sad side note, I read many years later that Bailey had died during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was working as the director of professional scouting for the Los Angeles Kings and was on board United Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles when that flight was hijacked by terrorists and flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Though Bailey was my first favorite, he was replaced in my heart shortly into the Capitals’ existence by Bryan Watson, who joined the Capitals in 1976. He was a veteran defenseman who had previously won a Stanley Cup with the fabled Montreal Canadians, and he racked up an amazing 2,212 penalty minutes as a professional hockey player. In 878 games in the National Hockey League, per the league’s statistics, Malone scored only 17 goals, meaning he was more valuable for his defense and ferocity than his particular skills with the puck.

But I mostly liked him because he went by “Bugsy.” 

So, the Capitals stunk in those early years, but I had Ace and Bugsy on my team, and there were a lot of fights on the ice, particularly in those days.

As Rodney Dangerfield once famously said, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.”

In the 1979-80 season, the Capitals became members of the Patrick Division. They went 27-40 that first year, to go with 13 ties. Still a bad team, for sure, but much more competitive than they were those first few years, and those Patrick Division rivalries were a big part of the Golden Years of sports for me — right up there with ACC and Big East college basketball of the 1980s. 

The Capitals finally made it into the playoffs in the 1982-83 season, led by Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter, and this became my favorite edition ever of the Caps. They also had a precocious 18-year-old defenseman by the name of Scott Stevens, who ended up in the Hall of Fame in 2007, following a 22-year career. The Caps made the playoffs 14 straight years, missed one year and then returned in 1997-98 and went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, where they were unceremoniously swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

And that was as close as they would come to claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup.

There has been plenty of heartache for the organization, and its fans, in the years since that run to the finals. There have been best-of-seven series lost when the team held a 3-1 lead. There have been seasons when the Caps have had the best record in the league, only to flame out early in the playoffs. And there has been the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Caps saw their last two seasons end to the heated rival Penguins, only to see Pittsburgh end their own season by lifting the Stanley Cup. This year saw the Caps face off with the Penguins again in the second round. Many of us Caps fans were hopeful, but not particularly optimistic.

Then the Caps won, four games to two. They then played the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals, and optimism was running pretty high after they finally got the Penguins monkey off their back. But then they fell behind three games to two, and the “Same ol’ Caps” line was prevalent on social media.

But the Caps won Game 6 to force a Game 7. Then they won that one, too.

The Caps played Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Monday night and dropped an exciting one, 6-4, to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in their first year.  It was exciting to sit there on the couch and see the Caps on the sport’s biggest stage, and even more exciting to see them respond after an early goal by the Golden Knights on their home ice could have deflated them right there and then.

Game 2 was set for Wednesday night, after the Point’s deadline, but it’s safe to say I spent Wednesday night watching the Caps, too. The players, coaches, fans and staff deserve a Stanley Cup championship after all these years, and I’m going to be pulling for them just like I was at 5.

And I’m going to be pulling for them to win it for Bugsy and Ace, as well. And Gartner, and Maruk and Carpenter...

By Darin J. McCann
Executive Editor