Capitals Host Conference Final, 20 Years Later


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After winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals in Tampa, the Washington Capitals got a chance to host it’s first semi-final round game in 20 years. That was the last time the Caps hosted a game in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Since that summer night in 1998, Capitals fans have dealt with disappointment after disappointment.

Just how long have those 20 years been? Well, the average gallon of gas in 1998 cost just over a dollar. Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office, Saving Private Ryan was the top movie in theaters. Also, streaming hockey games on a tablet and the term “selfie” were both nonexistent.

Capitals’ Last Season of Glory

The 1997-98 season was a special one in Washington’s history. The team opened a new arena in December of 1997. Then known as the MCI Center, the name was later changed to the Verizon Center. Currently, it’s referred to Capital One Arena.

No matter the name, the arena is the same.

The new ice during the 1997-98 season saw the home team make a remarkable run to the playoffs and ultimately end up in the Stanley Cup Finals. Led by Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter, Joe Juneau, Adam Oates and Dale Hunter, the Caps proved to be the best team in the East.

Bondra led the team with 52 goals on the year, while Oates dished out 58 helpers. Hunter and Sergi Gonchar helped lead a defense that could both score and play tough. Goalie Olaf Kolzig racked up 33 wins and a 2.20 GAA.

Olaf Kolzig Washington Capitals

Olaf Kolzig, Washington Capitals, (By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)), via Wikimedia Commons)

Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals occurred on June 2, 1998, in Washington, DC. The Capitals, up 3-1 in the series, hosted the Buffalo Sabres.

Buffalo’s Darryl Shannon got the scoring started just six minutes into the game on a pass from Dixon Ward. Washington evened things up 10 minutes later on a power play strike from Andrei Nikolishin. Richard Zednik was credited with the assist.

Unfortunately for the home fans, the Sabres got a Jason Woolley goal with just under five minutes to play. Little did anyone leaving the building that night know that it would be two decades before another Eastern Conference Finals game would be played on that ice.

The End of the Capitals Curse

Washington ultimately won the series against Buffalo in 1998, but got swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.

Following that postseason run, Washington missed the playoffs the next season and went into a rebuilding phase. After years of struggling, the Capitals finally got good again, thanks to adding guys like Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom through the NHL Draft.

The Capitals enjoyed a very successful stretch of regular seasons, making the playoffs every year since 2007, except 2014. As proof of the regular-season success, the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy during the 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

However, success in the regular season didn’t transfer to postseason success. The Capitals failed to get out of the first round, despite being the favorite to win it all on several occasions. Overtime losses, collapses and the Pittsburgh Penguins (9-1 series record against the Caps heading into this year) doomed the Caps when it mattered most.

Fast forward to the current year.

Washington finally broke its curse and advanced through to the third round. Of course, the Capitals had to get through their nemesis — the Penguins — to do it.

Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie

Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie (77) celebrates (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning traveled to our nation’s capital for a game that was long overdue. Of course, fans of the Capitals will be hoping for two home wins and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. But, regardless of the outcome of the Eastern Conference Finals, Washington finally got the playoff monkey off its back. That should set the stage for more playoff success to come for the Caps in the future.

A lot has changed since the Capitals hosted a third-round game, but hopefully the result will be the same as it was back in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.

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