Just one year after reaching the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history, the Capitals crashed back down to earth. The 1998-99 season was disappointing for the Caps, due in large part to more than 400 man-games missed due to injury.
With 12 games left to play in the season, the Capitals (29-35-6) were nine points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The NHL trade deadline was fast approaching on March 23, and the Caps, a veteran team loaded with future unrestricted free agents, were a player on the market.
As a potential unrestricted free agent, 38-year-old Dale Hunter, the face of the Capitals, knew that he could be on the move. For Hunter, who had no goals and five assists through the first 50 games of the season, the opportunity to cap a stellar career with a Stanley Cup was closing fast.
Hunter and general manager George McPhee met before the trading deadline, at which point the team captain was offered the opportunity to pick a team to be traded to, or finish his career with the Capitals.
Hunter deferred to McPhee on the team choice, who suggested Colorado as a possible destination. For Hunter, who began his career in the Avalanche organization, the opportunity to join a Cup contender was a welcome one.
“You know, as far back as I can remember, all I ever dreamed about was winning a Stanley Cup,” Hunter said. “I’d love to give it one more try.”
Sure enough, Hunter was dealt to the Avalanche, a team in search of a player who would bring leadership and an edge to their locker room. In return, the Caps received a second-round draft pick.
“It feels a little empty,” defenseman Calle Johansson said of the trade. “I’m happy for Dale, and since it was his choice to leave, I think it was a classy thing for George (McPhee) to do to send him somewhere he wanted to go. But it’s still hard. He’s one of my best friends, it’s been me and him for 10 years, always rooming together, off the ice, everything.”
Three days after the trade, the Capitals took on the Avalanche in Colorado, where Hunter, paired with Claude Lemieux and Theo Fleury in a line called the “Three Wise Guys,” scored an empty-net goal to seal a 3-1 victory.
“It was real hard,” Hunter said after the game. “The game’s finally over; I can let it go. It’s tough. Those guys are my friends. These were the guys I battled with through the years. To play against them makes it tough.”
The Avalanche would go on to reach the Western Conference Finals, where they would lose in seven games to the Dallas Stars.
For Hunter, it would be his last shot. The center, who spent parts of 12 seasons with the Capitals and eight with the Avalanche/Nordiques, announced his retirement in July of 1999.