The Habs last offseason were assembled by Bob Gainey much as a stew is — without regard for presentation and with the hope that all tastes well once the burner is turned off. Almost all season long, they’ve looked like a product befitting the manner in which they were assembled: rag-tag, tossed together with haste and whim, ultimately unsatisfying. They very much backed into the postseason, winners of just four of their final 12 games.
Worth noting: their chef is no longer in the kitchen.
The Capitals, conversely, bear the architecture of a team assembled expertly and with savvy.
A primary focus of attention for media in this series is Jose Theodore. Theodore went 20-0-3 with a 2.58 goals-against and a .922 save percentage after January 13. His 23 straight decisions without a regulation loss are the most in Capitals’ history, and the stretch included his club-record and career-best 10-game winning streak. Theodore was 30-7-7 on the season. Bottom line: If he plays merely reasonably well in this series the Caps win.
The Caps ought to win this series in short order, convincingly. It isn’t just that they were 33 points superior to Montreal during the regular season, but that there is an aura of arrival with these Capitals, one not predicated principally on the President’s Trophy, either. They’ve paid their dues, and then some. They’ve matured. Now more so than ever before this spring feels like the time is ripe for the Caps to strike. Big.
This is the first-ever playoff series between the Caps and Habs, and as such, something for Washington hockey fans to savor. Montreal, like the New York Yankees or Notre Dame football, is royalty in its sport, and no matter their postseason seeding, confronting them with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake is a special occasion. Should the Capitals go on to win Lord Stanley’s Cup this spring defeating Montreal — the winner of more Cups (24) than any other NHL franchise — en route enriches the achievement. Indisputably.
And it’s a showdown whose overdue arrival invites reflection on the remarkable regular season history between these franchises.
The Washington Capitals lost the first 23 games they played against Montreal, and that infamy extended in winless fashion to 0-31-3. The Capitals finally prevailed over the Habs at Capital Centre, on February 19, 1980, by the score of 3-1. Indulge a bit an old man’s reminiscence of the euphoria associated with that remarkable night.
There was no television coverage of that game in D.C. then. This was pre-Home Team Sports. Dad and I followed Ron Weber’s WTOP call in the family dining room while mom made dinner. Victory that night, I recall, made my father beam after dinner. A native of suburban New York, Dad saw his share of Rocket Richard’s Habs torment his Blueshirts throughout his youth in MSG. Dad loved to remind me of the winter sidewalks he needed to shovel of snow for the $7 required to gain a train ticket into the city and entry into MSG to see Richard and the Habs.
Early in my father’s Washington law career, the fledgling Caps became his adopted club, trips to the new arena in Prince George’s County a special father-son indulgence. A year or two after the Caps finally bested Montreal my father purchased full season tickets for the Capitals. I wonder if that first victory over Montreal was the catalyst?
Anyway, I remember vaguely Ron Weber orating with unprecedented passion in the postgame that breakthrough February night. Really it seemed like a dream. Not yet a teenager I was old enough still to appreciate the aura and awe Montreal held over the sport: they were after all just a few seasons removed from the greatest hockey season an NHL team had ever achieved. Many of those Habs’ heroes were still wearing le bleu, blanc et rouge. Our awful and wholly unrespected Caps had finally done it. I knew heading to bed that night that I’d clip the morning papers’ account of the win.
Why can’t scrapbooks with such clips more easily survive a few decades?
The 139 regular season games without a playoff series between these clubs are the most for any Capitals’ opponent. That streak ends tonight. Normally I’d treat game 1 of a postseason for a strong Capitals’ club a refreshing and welcomed arrival, but not necessarily special. Tonight is special. Tonight history — in the form of our game’s standard bearer — comes calling on Chinatown, to this new outpost imagining itself a sliver of the puck passion that is congenital in Montreal.
There are storylines aplenty with this series — the no. 1 vs. no.2 power play, Jose Theodore’s return to his NHL origins, Montreal, and the teams’ conspicuous competitiveness during four regular season games this season — but I find all of that somewhat sidebar to the novelty that is the arriviste Caps going up against the storied and stately Habs. Maybe it’s a fit of nostalgia borne by the middle aging, but I still see this series as newcomer struggling for respect against regal establishment.
I would strongly recommend that Capitals’ fans take the opportunity that is this series to immerse themselves in the lore that is Le Hockey Club de Montreal. Word arrived late Wednesday that, for the first time since the rebuilt Caps commenced a postseason, there wasn’t room enough in Verizon Center’s press box to accommodate all media requests for a first round series. That is undoubtedly attributable to the teeming traveling media that cover the Habs. One or two members of the Montreal media who’ll be in the Phone Booth tonight covered the early gory days between these clubs.
They’ll experience a markedly different atmosphere from Landover, don’t you think?
For what it’s worth, my old man tonight will be watching the game with his retired feet up before his shore home’s 46-inch flatscreen.
Caps in five.