In the spring of 1999, the Caps went 4-14-1 in their last 19 games, missing the playoffs just one year after their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit. It took a while for the 1999-2000 Washington Capitals to shake the malaise of the previous season, as they started the season 12-16-5-1.
But after Christmas, the Caps went on a two-month tear, entering March 3 with a record of 21-5-6 in their previous 32 games, due in large part to the play of their goaltender, Olie Kolzig. ‘Olie the Goalie’ was in the midst of one of his best NHL campaigns and would finish the season as the Vezina Trophy winner, with 41 wins, a 2.24 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.
On March 3, the Caps would face their old nemesis from the Stanley Cup Finals, the Detroit Red Wings, at Verizon Center (then MCI Center) in a game on national television.
The Red Wings had dominated the Caps during a six-year period to the tune of an 11-game winning streak and entered the contest as formidable as they ever had been, with the league’s highest scoring offense and a 38-20-6 overall record. If there ever was a measuring stick for the Caps, it was Detroit.
“We’ve measured ourselves for the last two months and we’ve passed most of the tests.” Capitals head coach Ron Wilson said before the contest. “I don’t think you can put any more value on this game.”
The Caps were playing their 12th game in 20 days, and were without the services of defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forwards Jan Bulis and Richard Zednik.
A tired Capitals team took the ice, putting most of the pressure squarely on the goaltender’s shoulders. But the home crowd came ready to play, giving Kolzig a boost throughout the game.
“It felt really good,” Kolzig said of the crowd. “The atmosphere in the building, it felt like the finals again. It is really easy to get into a game when you’re in that type of atmosphere.”
The Caps, feeding off of that energy, got off to a great start against the Red Wings. Just 16 seconds into the contest Andrei Nikolishin crashed the net and put a rebound past Chris Osgood for a 1-0 lead. Eight minutes later it was 2-0 when Steve Konowalchuck’s pass deflected off of Ulf Dalhen and right to Jeff Halpern
in front of the net.
But the Detroit offense, led by Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov, started humming.
The game remained 2-0 after the first period, but Detroit had outshot Washington 17-8. The Red Wings kept the pressure on in the second period, and Vyacheslov Kozlov broke through from point-blank range, hitting in his own rebound at 12:15 to cut the Caps’ lead to 2-1. That was all Detroit could get past Kolzig after 33 shots in two periods.
The shots kept mounting in the third for the Red Wings as the Caps hung on to the one goal lead. Despite being outshot by a margin of more than 2-to-1, it appeared the Caps would escape with a victory until back-to-back penalties less than two minutes apart gave Detroit the opportunity it needed to solve Kolzig. At 5:02, Yzerman fired a top-corner shot over Kolzig’s glove for a game-tying power-play goal.
The Caps had a chance to steal the game in regulation, but Nikolishin’s shot with 70 seconds left hit the post, and the contest ended in a 2-2 tie after a scoreless overtime.
For the game, Detroit had outshot Washington 54-21. It was Kolzig’s memorable performance – he tied a franchise record held by Michel Belhumeur (1974) with 52 saves – that gave the Capitals a chance at victory.
“I have to do my job at the end,” Kolzig said after the game. “They got off a lot of shots. It was just that kind of game. We’re pleased we got a point, but it could have been a win.”
Just one month later, the Capitals would go on to beat the Red Wings for the first time since Jan. 30, 1994, with a 4-2 win at Joe Louis Arena. In that game, Kolzig made 25 saves on 27 shot to help the Caps to victory.