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.
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.
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.
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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