NOTE: Caps Extra will count down each week with one of the top 12 events in Washington Capitals’ history.
For George McPhee it wasn’t the celebrating after the game in the locker room or back at the team’s practice facility – it was during the quiet of a 45-minute drive home when it finally started to sink in.
It was the early morning of June 5, 1998, and just hours before Joe Juneau had scored in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to put McPhee’s Washington Capitals into the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.
“I just couldn’t believe we were really going to the Stanley Cup finals,” McPhee said. “It was one of the greatest feelings of my professional life.”
While the Capitals are one of the favorites to win the Cup this season, this was not the case in 1998. Washington entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the East, but the top three seeds were all knocked out in the first round.
That the Capitals needed an overtime goal to advance to the league’s championship round should not have been a surprise. Washington won five times in overtime that postseason, and Juneau’s series-winner against Buffalo’s Dominik Hasek was his second sudden-death tally of the spring.
“We knew if we could just score a goal we would go to the finals,” former Capitals center Adam Oates said. “There was a play in the neutral zone. I bumped a guy and Brian Bellows picked up the puck, made a nice play to get it to the net and Joey popped in a rebound and it was like, ‘Wow, we’re in the finals.’ ”
Peter Bondra dominated the scoring for Washington during the regular season with 52 goals – nearly one-fourth of the team’s total. He had plenty of help in the postseason. Bondra had seven goals, but three other guys matched that total (including Juneau) and two more had six.
Detroit swept Washington in the finals, and the Red Wings earned their second straight Cup triumph. For now, Juneau’s goal is this franchise’s signature moment, and it may take something spectacular in a Stanley Cup final game to trump it.
“There was certainly a celebration in the locker room, but I remember coming back to Washington to the practice facility and seeing hundreds of cars lined up along the road and not understanding what was going on,” McPhee said. “It was probably 2:30 in the morning and the place was packed. It was incredible.”