When the Caps downed the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center on Sunday, they won their 10th straight game, a feat achieved by only one previous Capitals team. That prior streak occurred more than a quarter of a century ago, and it was fueled by four players who have since gained enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy.
The Capitals’ first-ever 10-game winning run began on Friday, January 27, 1984. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in town to face the Caps at the Capital Centre, and the visitors got on the board first on Rick Vaive’s 40th goal of the season in the first period. In front of a crowd of 11,699, the Caps roared back to score six unanswered goals on their way to a 6-1 win. Bryan “Butsy” Erickson had a pair, the second and third goals of his NHL career. The Capitals outshot Toronto 32-13 over the final two periods and 41-22 in the game.
A night later, the two teams met again in Toronto. Again, the Caps romped. Pat Riggin made 22 saves for the Caps as Washington flattened the Leafs, 8-0. Craig Laughlin and Gaetan Duchesne each scored twice as the Capitals got three in the first, three in the second and two in the third.
The Caps defeated ex-Washington goaltender Mike Palmateer in those two wins over the Leafs, and “The Popcorn Kid” was impressed with his former team.
“They’ve really become a good team,” he told The Washington Post
’s John Feinstein. “They come at you from inside, from outside, pounce on rebounds, and play good defense. They’ve come a long way.”
After the NHL All-Star break, the next stop was New Jersey where Riggin posted another whitewash in one of the closest games in the life of the streak on Feb. 2. With Riggin going up against the Devils’ Chico Resch, the game was scoreless until Stevens put the Caps on the board with a power play goal just past the midway point of the third period. Doug Jarvis added a late empty-netter, and the Caps streak went to three with a 2-0 win. Riggin needed to make only 14 saves in the game.
The next night, Washington was back at the Capital Centre to open a four-game homestand with the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps grabbed a 2-0 lead before Montreal’s Pierre Mondou scored at 9:44 of the second period, breaking Riggin’s shutout spell at 203 minutes, 52 seconds, still the longest in franchise history some 26 years later. The Capitals got third-period goals from Gartner and Bobby Carpenter and cruised to a 4-1 win.
Edmonton came to town next, but it did so without the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. Bothered by a shoulder injury, Gretzky stayed in Western Canada and missed just the third game of his professional career. Without Gretzky on the Oilers trip, Edmonton p.r. guy Bill Tuele stayed home, too. “I travel because of Wayne, period,” he was quoted as saying in the Feb. 4, 1984 edition of The Washington Post.
The rest of the Oilers – the team that would claim the first of its five Stanley Cup titles in seven years just four months later – were no match for the Capitals on that Sunday afternoon.
With vice-president George Bush in attendance, the Caps led 3-1 after the first period. Mark Messier’s 20th of the season drew the Oilers within one in the middle stanza. Washington then unleashed an offensive fury on the visitors in the third.
Duchesne scored at 2:39 to make it 4-2. Carpenter and Gartner followed in rapid succession, giving the Caps three goals in a span of 39 seconds (a club record at the time) against future Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr. Bobby Gould and Bengt Gustafsson joined in, giving the Caps five goals in the span of 7:33 to set a club mark (since broken) for fastest five goals. Duchesne later added the Caps’ sixth goal of the period to give Washington a 9-2 margin of victory over the dynamic Edmonton team.
“When we got a couple of quick goals,” remarked bench boss Bryan Murray, “it made it easier. I know what it feels like now to feel like Glen Sather,” Murray added, referring to the Oilers coach of those days.
The Caps had avenged an 11-3 loss in Edmonton earlier in the season. Some of the Oilers were complimentary in defeat.
“When they check you,” said Ken “The Rat” Linesman of the Caps, “it’s like a search and destroy mission. They mean business.”
Gartner’s first-period goal tied Dennis Maruk’s career franchise mark of 182 and his third-period tally gave Gartner a lead he would hold in that department for the better part of two decades, until Peter Bondra surpassed him.
Two off days after the win over Edmonton helped Washington recover from a flu bug that had coursed through the locker room. The Calgary Flames came to town to test Washington’s five-game streak on Feb. 8. The Flames posed little problem. Lanny McDonald scored in the first to even the game at 1-1, but Laughlin’s goal just 2:16 later gave the Capitals a lead they would not relinquish. Six different goal scorers nudged the Caps’ streak to six – the longest in franchise history at the time – in a 6-1 victory.
The win over the Flames elevated Washington into third place in the Patrick Division standings, the first time all season the Caps – who had started the season 0-7 – had been higher than fourth. At that stage of the streak – six games in – the Capitals had outscored the opposition by a combined 35-5.
Calgary coach Bob Johnson had kind words for the Caps in the wake of his team’s lopsided setback.
“Their defense is solid,” Johnson told Dave Fay in the Feb. 9, 1984 edition of The Washington Times
. “Their goalie is hot right now and their forwards are working. What else is there in the game?”
The Capitals themselves were beginning to feel their oats.
“We’re going to go all the way,” Laughlin told Fay. “We’re going to win it all. We just don’t want the Islanders to know it just yet. They’re going to be ready for us, but we want to sneak up on them.”
Washington’s homestand continued with a Saturday night visit from the Flyers on Feb. 11. After Alan Haworth staked the Caps to an early lead, the Flyers threw a scare into the streak with three unanswered goals to take a 3-1 lead early in the second. Not to worry. Gartner scored twice, Stevens scored twice and Haworth added another as the Caps closed the contest with five unanswered on their way to a 6-3 win.
With the homestand behind them, the Caps set out on a season-long, seven-game road trip that zigzagged from Minnesota to Los Angeles to St. Louis to Winnipeg to Chicago, to Detroit and finally, to Hartford. Seven games in seven cities in 13 nights.
Riggin pitched his third shutout of the streak against the North Stars in the trip opener, making 37 saves. It was the third straight shutout on the road. Washington was outshot (37-31) for the first time in 17 games, and Riggin’s road shutout streak stretched to 212 minutes 42 seconds.
Minnesota natives Dave Christian and Erickson were among the goal scorers who helped the Caps win their eighth in a row in that Feb. 13 game. The Caps killed seven North Star power plays without incident to run their streak of consecutive kills to 32. Minnesota’s power play was No.
1 in the league at the time.
“That’s the best 60 minutes of hockey I’ve seen any team play this year,” said Minnesota coach Bill Mahoney.
Gartner didn’t see it the same way.
“We won 10 minutes,” said the Caps right wing. “Pat Riggin won 50 minutes.”
The win moved the Caps to within two points of the top spot in the division.
“When you keep winning,” said Murray after the win in Minnesota, “the guys work harder and show more confidence, and it becomes harder to lose. Sooner or later, though, we’ll run into a hard-working team or a hot goaltender, we won’t get the breaks and this will end.”
Three nights later, the Capitals were in Los Angeles for a date with the Kings. After the two clubs played a scoreless first frame, Brian MacLellan – now the Capitals’ assistant general manager, player personnel – started a flurry of scoring when he tallied on a power play midway through the second. It would be the only power play goal surrendered by the Capitals during the life of the 10-game run. MacLellan’s goal ended Riggin’s road shutout streak at 241 minutes 45 seconds and the Caps’ run of consecutive penalty kills at 35.
That Los Angeles lead was short-lived. Forty seconds later, Gustafsson scored to make it 1-1. With help from MacLellan, Bernie Nicholls restored the Kings lead at 2-1 just 67 seconds after Gustafsson’s goal. Gartner drew the Caps even at 2-2 less than two minutes later, scoring a goal for the sixth straight game. Ex-King Murphy scored what would prove to be the game-winner in the final minute of the middle period. Duchesne added an empty-netter in the third as the Caps won 4-2.
On Feb. 18 in St. Louis, the Caps and Blues played a scoreless first. Laughlin notched the game’s first goal to give Washington a 1-0 lead early in the second, but St. Louis struck twice and took a 2-1 lead into the third. It was the only time during the life of the streak that the Caps trailed heading into the game’s final 20 minutes.
Haworth tied it at 2:26 and Carpenter gave the Caps a lead just over four minutes later. Jarvis’ empty-netter in his 700th NHL game sealed the deal and gave the Capitals the first double-digit winning streak in franchise history. With the victory, the Caps moved into a tie for first place in the Patrick Division standings.
“This has got to be a big thing for Mr. [Abe] Pollin and all the fans who stuck with the team through the losing years,” said Riggin in the Feb. 19, 1984 edition of The Washington Post
. “I hope they’re enjoying it, because I know we are.”
The next night in Winnipeg, the Caps led 2-0 and 3-2. Washington was eight seconds away from killing a questionable holding minor on Erickson in the third period when the Jets’ Laurie Boschman scored a power play goal to tie it at 3-3 with 6:36 remaining in regulation. The Capitals’ glorious run came to an inglorious end when Riggin and Murphy misplayed a Winnipeg lob into the Washington end in the second minute of overtime. Opportunistic Doug Smail scooped up the loose puck and fired it into an empty net to stop the streak at 10.
“The puck was coming back to our end and I was going to play it,” relayed Murphy in the Feb. 20, 1984 issue of The Washington Post
. “But it was rolling faster than I thought, so I pulled up. Pat thought I would get it, so he moved out of the way and Smail was right there.
“We had the breaks for 14 games [the Caps were 13-0-1 before the loss in Winnipeg], so I guess you could figure something like this would end it.”
“If I went after it, I could have got it,” lamented Riggin. “But I thought Murph would take it. It was a case of I got it, you got it, I got it, you got it, nobody’s got it. Those things happen.
“The streak could have ended a hundred different ways, at 10 different times. We won’t worry about that one. We know we’re not going to win every night.”
That loss ended one of the hottest runs in franchise history, a 16-1-1 spree. The Caps dropped four of five beginning with the loss to the Jets.
Riggin, who was 0-8-1 when he was sent to Hershey of the AHL on Jan. 8 for conditioning, was in goal for all 10 games and he earned NHL Player of the Week honors twice consecutively during the streak.
During the life of the streak, Washington outscored the opposition by a stunning 53-12 margin. The Caps outshot their foes by 317-227. Washington was 14-for-45 (31.1%) on the power play and 38-for-39 (97.4%) on the penalty kill.
Washington dressed the same dozen forwards for all 10 games and used seven different defensemen. All 19 of those skaters were plus players during the 10 games, and all recorded at least one point. Eleven of the 12 forwards scored at least one goal and a remarkable total of nine of the 12 forwards totaled at least eight points during the 10-game streak.
Gartner led the way with eight goals and 17 points. Christian paced the team with 11 assists. Ten players were at least plus-8, led by Stevens at plus-15. Stevens led the defense in scoring with nine points (three goals, six assists). Riggin had a 1.20 GAA and a .947 save pct. during the life of the streak.
Fueled by the streak, Washington closed out the 1983-84 season with a 29-7-2 mark in its last 38 games. It ousted the Flyers in three straight games (first round series were best-of-five in those days) in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and faced the four-time defending Cup champ Islanders in the second-round series.
The Caps won Game 1, but dropped Game 2 in overtime. The Isles would go on to win the next three to eliminate the Capitals from Cup contention.HOW THEY LINED UP DURING THE STREAK
16-Gustafsson, 10-Carpenter, 11-Gartner
27-Christian, 15-Haworth, 18-Laughlin
14-Duchesne, 12-Currie, 23-Gould
22-Adams, 25-Jarvis, 24-Erickson