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In Their Own Words: Capitals broadcast team looks back on 1998 Stanley Cup Final

In Their Own Words: Capitals broadcast team looks back on 1998 Stanley Cup Final

On Monday, May 28, the Capitals return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years.

While the players have come and gone, three men remain the same. Joe Beninati, Al Koken and Craig Laughlin were our eyes and ears for the 1998 Stanley Cup Final and remain our most trusted voices some 20 years later.

The three iconic Capitals broadcasters look back on the 1998 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Red Wings.

This is their story.

In Their Own Words: The 1998 Stanley Cup Final

Whether or not the Capitals were expected to make the 1998 Stanley Cup Final they were there, and it became a moment no one would soon forget.

Craig Laughlin (Capitals color commentator):  It is incredibly hard to describe what a Stanley Cup Playoff run is like. The fans are so much more into it, the players are so much more into it. You have high-level hockey like you have never seen. The first three rounds are spectacular, but when you get to that final, when one team is going home and one team is going to hoist the cup, there is not one ounce of energy left out there. Because of that, it’s the greatest sporting event of any sport in the world when you hoist the Stanley Cup.

Joe Beninati (Capitals play-by-play): It was a timely run for the Caps. It was an amazing season. It was George and Ron’s first year. Olaf Kolzig gets a chance in goal after an injury to Bill Ranford on opening night. It was the kind of season that was just unpredictable and then, at the right time, everything clicked.

Koken (Capitals play-by-play, analyst): For hockey people, it’s very exciting because you know how tough it is to get there. Some things worked well for the Capitals that year because some of the favored teams got upset in the first round, so once they got they got by Boston - which was an interesting series because two best friends, Byron De Foy and Olie Kolzig going head-to-head in goal. Once they got past the Boston Bruins, it was sort of uncharted territory -- it was Ottawa. That was kind of a strange team. The Caps beat them, and then you had to worry about Buffalo and Buffalo had the dominator -- Dominik Hašek. But Joey Juneau had that classic goal to beat Dominik Hasek and suddenly you realized that the Capitals were playing for a Stanley Cup.

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But the Capitals were not just facing any other team in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. They were facing the Detroit Red Wings, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, with an embarrassment of riches, making their third Stanley Cup Final appearance in four seasons. 

Laughlin:  I was in a little bit of disbelief that the Caps had jumped the hurdles that they had to because they were never expected to be there. It was just bewilderment that here we are in Game 1 against the Fab 5 Detroit Red Wings and their star-studded roster. This was gravy for the franchise and that team.

Koken: Yeah. The problem was, they were going against one of history’s best teams in that Scottie Bowman Detroit Red Wings squad.

Beninati: The Caps were the vast underdog in the Final but they had a puncher’s chance because again, they had five overtime wins in the run-up to the Final. That had never happened for a Caps franchise; Stanley Cup playoff overtime was hell for them. Instead, it all clicked. So they were going to have a puncher’s chance. But that Detroit team at that time was STACKED.

Koken: The idea that you were facing a Detroit team that was the overwhelming favorites -- you wondered, could this rag-tag bunch, which had pulled off so many surprises just to get there -- continue to do something. Because Game 1 was on the road and this city didn't have a great hockey feel at the time, people were excited about the event and there was always that good strong core of Capitals fans, but it wasn't like we’re seeing now with the entire city being electrified.

Laughlin: We were living in a world where it was sort of 'uh-oh we’re playing the Detroit Red Wings'. The expectations weren't as high as they are this year where you’re looking at the matchup and saying ‘The Caps are going to win the Stanley Cup.’

Beninati: It was magic to watch Caps fans react to it. Just to watch the fan base warm to hockey, gravitate to it and be excited by it. I’ll never forget the crowds at Piney Orchard when the team came home from Buffalo. The way that the community warmed up to a big event. D.C. is a big event town, and that was a huge event at that time. That’s what I remember the most.

Koken: The other thing that was odd about it is was the building had way too many Detroit fans. It’s going to be a dramatic difference in the feel of this Stanley Cup Final compared to the last time 20 years ago.

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The Capitals dropped Game 1 in Detroit 2-1 but felt confident heading into Game 2. Then Esa Tikkanen happened. 

Laughlin:  Esa Tikkanen, Esa Tikkanen, Esa Tikkanen. I was so impressed after Game 1 and leading into Game 2. The way they started to play -- and they were playing hard -- they were in on the Detroit Red Wings. They made the Wings make mistakes, it’s 2-0, and all of a sudden Esa Tikkanen has a chance to make it 3-0.

Koken: The Capitals with an opportunity to get that series even and bring some momentum back with them, and Esa Tikkanen -- who had just gotten there -- with that opportunity. Steve Konowalchuk had just had a goal that put the Capitals up 2 and thinking wow, we’re in great shape.

Beninati: I remember Esa Tikkanen missed an open net chance to give the Caps a pretty good lead and it came back to haunt them.

Koken: And then you think to yourself, well what could possibly happen? You’re 1-1, you come home -- anything’s possible. He missed the next, Detroit scored right after that and suddenly that shifted. Once Detroit came back to Washington up 2-0, you thought to yourself, man, I don’t think this is in the cards this year.

Beninati: But no one was beating that Detroit team at that time. They had swept Philly the year before and they were bound to be back-to-back champs.

Laughlin: At the time I was doing a little radio, and I said ‘you know what, we’re going to go back 1-1.’ Then the shot goes wide, and it’s Draper and company and they come back in a big way, so that’s the one thing; I don’t remember any goals whatsoever from that series - if you can believe it, 20 years ago. I don’t remember anything about that, but I do remember Esa Tikkanen and his Stanley Cups brought to Washington for THIS moment, and he misfired.

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It has been 20 years since the Capitals' played for Lord Stanley's Cup. But the similarities between that team and the 2018 team end with what they were playing for. 

Beninati: When people ask me if there are similarities between the '98 team and this year’s team, that’s where I differ with many of them. Would this team look different if it had Johansson and Williams and Alzner and Shattenkirk and Schmidt? Of course, it would. But I wasn't one of those people that thought they were going to fall off the cliff this year. I knew they would still be competitive. They have elite players at the most important spots. So I thought they would compete in the Metro. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I didn’t think they would take a huge step back. In my mind, this is the third year of them really being a Cup contender. 

The previous two years, yeah, on paper, they were supposed to do it even more so. But this team is still really, really good.

I like to look at the 2009 team, the 2010 team, 2016, 2017 and this one…those five teams are really darn good. Any of those five could have won a Cup. They were loaded, but they weren’t ready.

For whatever reason, this one was ready to fight back.   

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

On Friday, the Capitals shipped out Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to clear space on the salary cap for John Carlson's massive contract extension.

On Sunday night, Carlson signed on the dotted line. 

The 28-year-old became the latest core Cap to sign a long-term deal, inking an eight-year extension that will carry an $8 million average salary. 

His cap hit is now the second highest on the team—behind Ovechkin’s $9.538 million charge and just ahead of Kuznetsov’s $7.8 million hit.

With Carlson locked up, the defending Stanley Cup champion now has the majority of its core signed through at least the 2019-20 season. Among the players with at least two years remaining on their deals are forwards Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nickas Backstrom and Lars Eller, defensemen Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Braden Holtby.

The Carlson news did not come as a surprise.

The Caps wanted to keep him. Carlson, who makes his offseason home Washington, wanted to stay with the club that drafted him 27th overall in 2008. And on Friday night in Dallas, GM Brian MacLellan all but guaranteed that a deal was going to happen when he said, “We’re close and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”

It ended up taking a little more than 24 hours, but in the end MacLellan got his D-man.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said MacLellan in a statement on Sunday. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime.”

Indeed, Carlson notched a career-high 15 goals and 53 assists last season, and his 68 points led all NHL defensemen. He also became the eighth defensemen in Caps’ history to record 60 points in a season and the first since Mike Green accomplished the feat in 2009-10. Meanwhile, Carlson’s average ice time (24:47) also marked a career high.

“As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams,” MacLellan added. “We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

With Carlson under contract, the Caps now have a little more than $13 million in cap space underneath the $79.5 million ceiling, according to www.capfiendly.com. Michal Kempny, Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek are all unrestricted free agents, while Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey are restricted free agents.

Carlson’s signing kicks off a big week for MacLellan.

In addition to negotiating with the free agents he hopes to retain, he’s expected to have a formal interview with associate coach Todd Reirden, who is the leading candidate to replace Barry Trotz as head coach.

So buckle up, there figure to be a few more important announcements in the coming days.

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

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