The Chicago Blackhawks entered the 1974-75 season as one of the powerhouse teams of the NHL. Just over two years removed from a Stanley Cup finals appearance, the '74-75 Hawks were coming off a 105-point season that still ranks as the third most points ever recorded in the franchise's 78-year NHL history.
That's why members of the Blackhawks were so cheesed off at being the first "victims" of the Washington Capitals, a talent-deprived expansion team playing its fourth game in the league. When members of the fourth estate descended upon a grim Chicago locker room after the Caps downed the Hawks by a 4-3 count on October 17, 1975, they were warned by a policeman standing guard at the entrance.
"I wouldn't go in there right this minute," he said. "They're not in the best of moods."
The Capitals, after two losses and a 1-1 tie in their first three games in the league, tasted victory in their second home game ever. And they beat an Original Six team and league heavyweight in the process.
Chicago came into Landover on the heels of a shutout win in Boston, arriving in the Washington area at 4 am on the morning of the game. Figuring that his team could handle the hapless Capitals, Chicago head coach Billy Reay elected to give diminutive (5-foot-9, 150 pounds) backup goalie Mike Veisor the start against Washington. Future Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, who authored the shutout over brother Phil's Bruins in Boston, would get the night off.
Denis Dupere got the Caps on the board at 13:04 of the first with his first goal of the season. Dupere was trying to throw a centering pass from behind the goal line to the front of the net but the puck caromed off Veisor's skate and into the cage. Bruce Cowick picked up the lone helper. Just over three minutes later, Chicago's Jim Pappin tied the score. The Hawks outshot the Caps 12-8 in the first period.
Chicago took a 2-1 lead on Germain Gagnon's power-play goal in the first minute of the second period. Dupere evened it up midway through the second on a power play when he banked a shot off the backside off veteran Hawks defenseman Doug Jarrett. Jarrett was unimpressed by Dupere's marksmanship.
"That was no big deal," huffed Jarrett afterwards. "I have the biggest butt in the league."
Dupere's second goal was unassisted.
Washington grabbed its second lead of the night at 11:37 of the second on Ron Anderson's second goal of the season. Anderson, a former Boston University star, received help from a pair of former Bruins as Bill Lesuk and Tommy Williams picked up the assists. Dennis Hull brought the Blackhawks even at 14:41 of the middle frame when he scored Chicago's second power-play goal of the evening. Washington edged Chicago in second period shots on goal, 7-6.
At 8:46 of the third period, Jack Egers earned the distinction of scoring the first game-winning goal in Washington Capitals history. Egers, not at all known for being fleet of foot, took a pass from defenseman Greg Joly and glided past a pair of Chicago defenders into the offensive zone. He then unleashed a shot that beat Veisor and gave the Capitals a 4-3 lead. Yvon Labre was credited with the second assist on the goal.
"I never saw Egers move that fast," remarked Joly afterwards.
The lanky Caps winger did not disagree.
"I'm 6-foot-2," said Egers after the game. "It takes me a good while to get moving. I find myself really rolling by Christmastime."
The Blackhawks poured it on the Caps in the third but Washington netminder Ron Low was able to withstand the barrage. It was too little, too late. Chicago outshot the Caps 18-10 in the third and 36-25 on the night but Washington held on for its first win, pleasing the sparse crowd of 9,471. Only 8,093 were in attendance two nights earlier for the first home game in Capitals history, a 1-1 draw against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Hawks were upset with themselves for not having taken the hard-working Capitals more seriously.
"A couple of fluke goals made the difference," lamented Veisor after the first regular season loss of his NHL career (he had gone 7-0-2 as a rookie in 1973-74). "It's definitely worse because they're an expansion team."
Hawks defenseman Bill White also made mention of Dupere's two "bank shot" goals.
"They have everything to gain and nothing to lose," he said of the Capitals. "They've got a lot of spirit. I thought it was a good game on both sides. We don't usually score two goals for the other team, you know."
Chicago center Pit Martin was also heard singing the blues in the locker room after the game.
"I don't know why this happens to us," he fumed. "They did come out checking like hell and got the jump on us. We never got into it."
Reay offered no excuses.
"Those guys beat us," he stated flatly. "They deserved it."
Future Hall of Fame center Stan Mikita was given an opportunity to blame the loss on Chicago's wee hours arrival into the DC area. He declined.
"Our problem was letting ourselves get complacent against this new team after a big win," he opined. "As the game progressed, we should have woken up.
"They checked us pretty good and kept us from getting a good head of steam," he continued. "And we weren't getting many rebounds from Low, either."
In the Caps locker room, Low was holding court and describing his own personal battles with the feisty Mikita.
"He skates in front and hooks his body behind my stick," exclaimed the Caps netminder. "It throws you off. He's been doing it for years but if you hit him a couple of times, he stops."
Low had little sympathy for Veisor and the bad bounces that ended up eluding him.
"I can't feel too sorry because if we don't get those two bounces, we don't win," he admitted. "Those things happen and they'll happen to me before the season is over.
"In the meantime, I'm celebrating. I think I might drink a couple now. A couple of cases, that is."