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A Look Back at the Capitals 1998 Eastern Conference Title

As the Capitals prepare for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final Monday night in Las Vegas, we re-live some of the memories from the last time the Capitals were crowned Eastern Conference champions.

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

It wasn't aesthetically pleasing, but for a franchise that waited 24 years to play for the Stanley Cup, style points didn't matter.

So, when Joe Juneau finished off a goalmouth scramble by jamming a rebound past Buffalo's Dominik Hasek in Game 6 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Final, the celebration was on. Juneau's overtime winner, six minutes 24 seconds into the extra session, sealed a 3-2 victory and secured the Capitals' first conference title.

The team that couldn't get out of its own way during its first eight seasons, and later developed a reputation as playoff underachievers, had earned the right to compete for the most famous trophy in sports.

"You don't believe it at first," goaltender Olie Kolzig recalled. "You're waiting for something to happen - maybe for the goal to be overturned - but then it hits you and you're thinking, 'We're going to the Stanley Cup Final! We're going to the Stanley Cup Final!' That's all I could think of. It was crazy."

The 1997-98 Capitals surprised many on their way to the NHL's biggest stage. They entered the playoffs as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, a year removed from missing the postseason altogether. But when the top three seeds - New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia - were all upset in the first round, the Capitals suddenly found themselves as the top team in the East.

"A lot of times the playoffs are about getting the right match-ups," former general manager George McPhee said in 2017. "Maybe a few things fell into place for us that spring, but we had a good veteran team, we got a break in the first series [with a disallowed go for the Boston Bruins in an eventual Capitals win] and we had outstanding goaltending."

After knocking off the Bruins in six games in Round 1, the Capitals made quick work of the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators in five games in Round 2.

The Senators outshot the Capitals in all five games, but Kolzig was the difference. He allowed a total of three goals in Washington's four wins and stopped all 65 shots he faced in earning back-to-back shutouts in Games 4 and 5 to close out the series.

"That series I was probably more in the zone than at any point in my career," he said. "It's weird how that works as an athlete- you wish you could be in that zone all the time. But those two weeks, I was as locked in as ever. I remember [Game 4] in Ottawa, we were outshot 36-11 and we won 2-0. Playing playoff games in Canada, it's hockey central up there, maybe just being in that atmosphere helped. But it was great. I just felt right."

The Capitals would need more of the same from Kolzig if they had any chance of beating Hasek and the Sabres in the conference finals. 'The Dominator,' was arguably the best goaltender in the world in 1998, fresh off an Olympic gold medal in Nagano and on his way to becoming the first goalie in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy in consecutive seasons as league MVP. 

"Hasek was in his prime," McPhee said. "But Olie had a better series."

"You can't say enough about Olie Kolzig when you talk about that run," said Kelly Miller. "More than anything, Olie was just outstanding. We really fed off of him, he gave us a lot of confidence and he covered a lot of our warts. To have a goaltender playing as well as Olie played in those games was probably more than anything what got us to the Finals."

Kolzig had a 30-save shutout in Game 4 in Buffalo as the Capitals beat the Sabres 2-0 to take a 3-1 series lead. It was Kolzig's team-record fourth shutout of the playoffs.

The Capitals couldn't close out the series on home ice - the Sabres won Game 5 at MCI Center 2-1 - so the teams returned to Marine Midland Arena for Game 6. The Capitals rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to force overtime.

Just over six minutes into OT, Sabres defenseman Darryl Shannon turned the puck over to Juneau at the Buffalo blueline. Juneau then fed linemate Brian Bellows as he was entering the zone with speed.

"I remember getting the puck and just driving wide," Bellows said of his strategy to beat Hasek. "My thinking is, I'm basically going to try to get a couple of guys into the net. I knew I wasn't going to score. So, the thought becomes, 'Just take it to the net.' You're hoping to cause a commotion or some chaos and maybe the puck will just be laying there. And that's what happened. Joey came in and Dominik was down on the play and that's how he scores."

Bellows did in fact drive to the net and had three chances to beat Hasek from in-close. Hasek stopped them all, but along the way he fell to the ground, sprawled out trying to retrieve the loose puck. With the puck just out of Hasek's reach, Juneau was able to bang in the winning goal.

"That brings back some great memories," Juneau said. "That goal was one great moment, but we had a lot of special nights. It was a wonderful time, the whole spring of '98. The run we had for the Cup that spring, it was amazing. It was great team that just gelled and had a good push."

Juneau played 12 seasons in the NHL and never had more than three game-winning goals in a single campaign. His overtime goal in Buffalo was his fourth game-winner in the 1998 playoffs.

"It all came together at the time right time," he said. "That's what happens when you reach the finals."

The moment was especially gratifying for those who waited the longest. The club's original owner, Abe Pollin, did not attend Game 6 in person, but received a congratulatory phone call from McPhee outside the Capitals dressing room.

Pollin then asked McPhee to put Dale Hunter on the phone so the owner could congratulate his captain. Hunter was 37 and in his 18th NHL season. After 1,345 career games (and 163 more in the playoffs), Hunter had reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time.

"It's a big thrill because it's a longtime coming," he told reporters. "In 18 years, I've been to the conference finals three times and [lost] all three times. Now, to be in this situation - to be playing in June like this - is unbelievable."

At the time, nobody had played more games in a Capitals sweater than Miller, who had been acquired more than 11 years earlier. He was also moving on to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his NHL career.

"Those are great memories and it was just a joy to be a part of it all," said Miller, who would retire one year later. "For me, it was kind of a nice way to put a semi ending to a really nice career in Washington. Such great memories along the way and to have the chance to play for the Stanley Cup at the end was a nice thing."

As part of the postgame celebrations, Hunter accepted the Prince of Wales Trophy awarded to the Eastern Conference champions. The Capitals paraded the trophy around the ice and later posed for pictures with it in the dressing room. Since the turn of the century, some teams have refused to touch the conference championship trophy, suggesting it will jinx their chances at winning the big prize.

"We let loose," Kolzig said. "We didn't even think about that. We looked at it like, 'We have to beat one more team.' For some teams, some individuals, that bothers them, but not us. I mean, hey, it was the first time in franchise history. It was great when Dale got presented the trophy- all the guys were so pumped for him."

Hunter made a toast on the team's charter flight back to Baltimore and word began to spread that thousands of fans were waiting to greet them at the Piney Orchard Ice Rink.

"I remember that night like it was yesterday," said coach Ron Wilson. "We came back and the place was packed. They actually opened the building and when we arrived back from the airport at two in the morning, about two miles from Piney Orchard, fans and cars were everywhere lining the streets. We realized at that point how special it was."

"The day after we won the third round was one of the happiest days of my life," said team president and minority owner Dick Patrick. "It was like euphoria. That day, I felt for sure that we were going to win the Stanley Cup."

The Capitals ultimately fell to the Detroit Red Wings, swept in four games, as Detroit repeated as Stanley Cup champions. The first three games of the series were all decided by one goal.

"Looking back, I still think that we had a good enough team to win," said Bellows, a Stanley Cup champion with Montreal in 1993. "Detroit had the advantage of being there before. If we had been there before, the same team, I think it eases the nerves and makes a real difference in how you play."

Still, the experience of reaching the Stanley Cup Final remains a fond memory and one of the greatest achievements in team history.

"It was fun for me," Miller said, "after all the years of [general manager David] Poile essentially trying to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, to finally see some of the pieces come together and to at least get to the final dance. It certainly wasn't the outcome that we wanted, but it felt good to at least get to that final stage and give ourselves a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

This is an excerpt from the book 100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (available in local bookstores and available for online order):

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