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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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Holtby's early exit leaves Caps pondering their goalie situation

Holtby's early exit leaves Caps pondering their goalie situation

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby faced three shots in Monday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. All three went in.
 

That’s no way to start a game. Before the contest was eight minutes old Washington was down 3-0. Holtby knew what was coming. His day was done before it really even started. The frustration was evident as he skated off the ice to be replaced by rookie Ilya Samsonov. 
 
“You need to fight harder to find that first one and find a way to make a save on either of the second ones,” Holtby said. “It's unacceptable on my half and the last few games here, I feel like I've put a lot of that weight on my shoulders and it's something I really need to get better at. Because we fought hard and I just need to be better."
 
Holtby took the blame. Hard to make him shoulder all of it given that his teammates started slowly against a very good team. Colorado is now 5-0-0 after its 6-3 win at Capital One Arena.
 
Holtby probably could have stopped Erik Johnson’s slap shot from just inside the blueline 3:42 into the game. A nice screen in front by former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky made the puck hard to see. Still, it’s one Holtby would like back. 
 
At 6:00 of the first period Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen beat Capitals defenseman John Carlson to a clearing attempt and found defenseman Nikita Zadorov in front of the goal with a nice pass. Jonas Siegenthaler was nowhere to be found to cover for Carlson. Holtby was left out to dry. 
 
Just 1:54 later, Washington defenseman Tyler Lewington failed to read a cross-ice pass on a rush up ice by Jonas Donskoi. He hit Nazem Kadri in stride entering the offensive zone. Lewington was already beat by the time he realized what had happened. So was Holtby, who was faced with an oncoming skater on the left wing with no one in front to stop him
 
"I just gotta find a way. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it doesn't,” Holtby said. “You just gotta find a way to help the team win. Tonight I didn't do that and it's on me to make sure I improve that. It's frustrating. You just gotta go back to work, work even harder and find a way back into that mindset that success comes from."
 
No one is suggesting Holtby’s job status is in jeopardy. He is 14 months removed from a brilliant two months that helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018 and he’s been a mainstay in net since 2012. But the numbers are rough through five games. Holtby has an .846 save percentage, 45thin the NHL. He has stopped 99 of 117 shots. 
 
“It's a team. We're a team. Our players are accountable to themselves, to one another,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “That's good that Braden said that and I'm sure there are some things that he would like to have done different. But there are some things that a lot of us will like to have done different. We're in this together and that's something that hasn't been a problem to start and it was tonight.”
 
Reirden did acknowledge, though, that Samsonov was playing well enough to give the coaching staff something to think about. He’s been solid. Expect Holtby to start Wednesday against the talented, skilled Toronto Maple Leafs as Washington looks for its first home win. But it’s a situation to monitor with Holtby in the final year of his contract and Samsonov the organization’s top prospect.  
 
Samsonov has 68 saves on 72 shots (.951 save percentage). But he is a rookie and that number is unsustainable for any goalie. He also showed his youth in the third period with a bad giveaway behind the net that Colorado easily converted into a goal. It didn’t seem to matter much at the time. The Avalanche took a 5-2 lead. It mattered a lot when Washington scored a late goal to cut the deficit to 5-3 and had another wiped away on video review. 
 
“Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it doesn't,” Holtby said. “You just gotta find a way to help the team win. Tonight I didn't do that and it's on me to make sure I improve that. It's frustrating. You just gotta go back to work, work even harder and find a way back into that mindset that success comes from."

 

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Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

Holtby's night ends after only three shots as Avalanche hand Caps a loss

WASHINGTON -- The Colorado Avalanche scored on its first three shots of the game and Capitals could never recover in a 6-3 loss Monday. Braden Holtby surrendered the first three goals before being relieved by Ilya Samsonov. The Caps mounted a comeback to make it 4-2, but a back-breaking goal in the third period was the final nail in the coffin of an ugly loss.

Observations from the loss

Let’s talk about the goalies

I know this is pretty much all you guys want to talk about, so let’s talk.

Holtby was bad in this game. No one is going to dispute that. But Colorado is also really, really good and the defense did not help Holtby all that much. All three of those things can be true. Fans sometimes can get one-track minds and I bet there are more than a few people who are going to put this game entirely on Holtby and forget about the other two points.

It’s not Holtby’s fault John Carlson turned the puck over and the completely misplayed the resulting rush defensively leading to the second goal. It’s also not Holtby’s fault that Tyler Lewington was too slow to react to the break-in and was beaten easily by Nazem Kadri.

I am not saying Holtby doesn’t deserve any of the blame for Monday’s loss, I’m just saying let’s not go nuts.

This game doesn’t mean that Holtby is washed up, it doesn’t mean the team should try to trade him immediately, it doesn’t mean that Ilya Samsonov is suddenly the No. 1 goalie going forward. All it means is that Samsonov has earned more playing time. That’s it.

Whatever the plan was for Samsonov, he has played well enough and Holtby has struggled enough that you should consider getting Samsonov more games. I would start him on Wednesday against Toronto and go back to Holby on Friday against the New York Rangers.

For now, however, Holty is still the No. 1. That doesn’t mean that can’t change, but we have seen this play out before with the same goalie Holtby played against on Monday. Philipp Grubauer passed Holtby in 2018 and then the playoffs came around and Holtby was back to being Holtby and retook the crease. I am not going to kick him to the curb because of a bad October.

The Caps’ identity is physical hockey

A 4-0 game could have gotten very ugly very fast. The Caps came out in the second period and committed to a physical game and it completely changed the momentum. A game that looked like it was going to be an ugly, horrendous, “burn the tape” type of game turned competitive. Suddenly it was 4-2 heading into the third period.

The second period reminded me of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final between the Caps and Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were the better team, highly skilled and should have won that series. They didn’t because the Caps beat the stuffing out of them. That’s why the Washington-Tampa Bay games last year were so physical because the Lightning wanted to show the Caps they weren’t going to be pushed around.

The one downside to being a physical team like that is that it takes a toll. You can’t play that way for 82-games and that’s why, in my opinion, you see these types of teams come out of nowhere in the postseason. A middle-of-the-pack team suddenly commits to the physical game every night and knocks around a stunned Toronto or Tampa Bay.

Turning point

Obviously the turning point was allowing three goals on three shots, so I’ll go with something different and pick Samsonov’s third-period gaffe.

The Caps had taken control of the momentum heading into the third and it looked like they could make a game of it until Samsonov made a huge mistake behind the net.

Samsonov went behind the net to retrieve a puck on a Colorado dump-in. Tyson Jost came to pressure him and Samsonov tried to fire the puck along the boards past him. Jost got his stick in front of the puck and then had a helpless Samsonov stuck behind the net. Jost threw the puck in front of the net and a diving Matt Nieto hit it in.

The Caps still tried to come back, but that was the moment you knew they were going to come up short.

Play of the night

In a win or go home Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2018 ECF, Ovechkin was the best player on the ice. His stats in that game? No goals and no assists. It didn’t matter. He was a physical force and helped the Caps win that game by sheer force of will.

Ovechkin tried to do the same thing on Monday with hits like this one on Samuel Girard.


Stat of the night

With this loss, the Caps have now lost their first three home games for the first time since the 1983-84 season. As my colleague Brian McNally said on a podcast we recorded after the game, those weren’t exactly the glory years of the Caps’ franchise.

Washington has managed some pretty big wins on the road, but those are being wasted by the fact that this team can’t get a win at home.

Quote of the night

Todd Reirden on Samsonov’s play:

“He's doing what he's supposed to be doing, and that's to make it like a decision every night of who's going to be considered to play that game.”

That’s about as close as you’re going to get to Reirden saying he is considering playing Samsonov more.

Fan predictions

Now this is bold. I like it.

But it was also wrong. Burakovsky got an assist, but Jakub Vrana can’t seem to get out of Todd Reirden’s dog house right now.

Gudas and Kadri were exchanging words behind the play when Oshie scored. I’ll give it to you.

I’m pretty sure Stephen Strasburg started.

Almost. They would have had a shot if not for the Samsonov mistake or the coach’s challenge on Carlson’s goal.

The Caps did not win and saying Holtby looks disinterested just isn’t fair. He has always been a calm, calculated goalie. He even said after “The Save” that it wasn’t a technically sound play. This is just the way he plays and has always played, from Vezina Holtby to 2019 Holtby.

Having said that, he was pulled so you were technically correct. Don’t get weird about it though.

Oh, you got weird.

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