When the Washington Capitals wrapped up the Patrick Division championship Sunday night, it was a time of rejoicing for those who have witnessed the team’s struggles since the awful 8-67-5 beginning in 1974-75, the worst record in NHL history.
“We (players, coaches and their families) had a quiet dinner in the Inner Circle club, watched the end of the Pittsburgh game and went to leave (Capital Centre),” said Coach Bryan Murray. “A lot of people were still out there, cheering and thanking the players. More than one of them said, ‘After 15 years, this means a lot.’ ”
It may have meant the most to owner Abe Pollin, the man who obtained a hockey team to make his dream of Capital Centre viable and learned to love the sport while experiencing a seemingly endless series of heartbreaks.
“I’m obviously very happy,” Pollin said. “I was watching the Pittsburgh-Rangers game on TV and when (Mario) Lemieux hit the empty-netter, I took off. I screamed and jumped and hugged my wife. We had our own private celebration.
“It’s unbelievable that after 15 years of sticking with it, we ended up doing it. It shows that if a thing is worthwhile, you have to stick with it, sometimes through great disappointment.”
The Capitals’ first pennant-clincher came Easter Sunday and most recent passengers on the bandwagon look back only as far as Easter 1987 to mark the depth of adversity. Early that Easter morning, Pat LaFontaine’s goal in a fourth overtime period knocked Washington out of the playoffs.
Pollin, however, recalled another wrenching experience, coincidentally on Fan Appreciation Night, which ended so gloriously Sunday. That was in 1981, when the Capitals defeated Detroit and many stayed to listen to the radio broadcast from Quebec, where a victory by the favored Nordiques over Toronto would have given the Capitals their first playoff berth.
Instead, the Maple Leafs beat Michel Bergeron’s club and it would be two more years before Washington qualified for the postseason. Now, the Capitals are celebrating because another club coached by Bergeron went down to defeat and removed the final obstacle to Washington’s pennant puzzle.
“There have been some frustrating moments,” Pollin said. “I’ll never forget that one, sitting in my dining room listening to the radio and hoping that team would lose so we’d edge into the playoffs for the first time. It didn’t happen.
“Now it has happened for us and I’m proud of the team and our organization. We’ve been successful on the ice and off it. We’ve had sellouts at more than half the games this year and you only have to go back five or six years to see how far we’ve come.”
Pollin, who has invited the leaders of the 1982 “Save the Caps” campaign to accompany the team to the Soviet Union in September, said his pre-season prediction of a first-place finish was more than just an attempt at motivation.
“I really felt we’d finish first,” Pollin said. “Obviously, the recent trades (General Manager) David (Poile) made solidified things, but I never felt any doubts about my prediction.”
Asked about the Mike Gartner trade, Pollin said, “I had the same reservations I always have when we trade people I know personally and like as human beings. I felt the same way about trading Jack Marin for Elvin Hayes (with the Bullets) and trading Ryan Walter (to Montreal), somebody of whom I was personally fond.
“But when you sit in my seat, you have to do what’s best for the franchise and subjugate your personal feelings. When you can’t do that, it’s time to get out. I’m still here.”
Pollin made no predictions of a Stanley Cup, but he did say, “We’re on a roll and I just hope we can continue. The second season starts now and it’s the most important one.”
Murray is enjoying the luxury of preparing for that second season without the usual last-ditch battle for position in the standings getting in the way.
“We still don’t know who we’re playing, although it would appear to be Philadelphia,” Murray said. “This gives us a chance to give a couple of guys a game off and to work on a few things in practice without regard for the next day. If the guys are too tired for the game, too bad.
“As soon as we know for sure who we’re playing, we can do things for that specific team. Before it seemed we always had a dogfight, some disappointment, an injury or two, and two days later we were moving right into the playoffs. Now we have a better team, a deeper team and we’re better able to handle adversity, if it should come.”
Among the players Murray plans to rest for at least one game are Rod Langway, Bengt Gustafsson and Dave Christian. Others, such as Dale Hunter, said they wanted to stay in the lineup every night.
The Capitals currently are riding an eight-game winning streak, one short of Montreal’s season high and only two away from the Washington club record set January-February 1984.
The streak, like first place, does not carry much weight with Murray, whose principal aim is to send the club into the playoffs at a high level.
“We have a lot of hard work ahead and the celebration is over,” Murray said. “It’s nice, though. As much as we talk that it doesn’t matter, it’s good to finish first. The 80 games have to be worth something.”
Washington became only the third team in 15 years to win a Patrick Division title, Philadelphia having finished first eight times, the Islanders six. The Capitals, who shifted from the Norris Division to the Patrick in 1979 as part of the World Hockey Association merger, had been second the last five years.