Dick Heller: Caps still cherish Juneau’s goal

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When your hockey franchise has been to the Stanley Cup Finals once in 34 seasons (and counting), it sticks in your mind. Thus the Capitals made Joe Juneau available before today’s 10th anniversary of his goal that swept the Caps past the Buffalo Sabres and into the NHL’s version of the Big Dance in 1998.

It’s probably unfair to mention what happened after that: The Caps were swept in four games by Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings, scoring a lonesome goal in each of three losses. But, heck, at least they there, which is better than hauling out the golf clubs in mid-May or earlier.

It’s worth noting that the anniversary comes two days after Monday night’s triple-overtime thriller in which the Pittsburgh Penguins lived to fight (literally perhaps) another day against those same Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. But then Juneau always did have a good sense of timing.

Although captain Dale Hunter, wing Peter Bondra and goalie Olie Kolzig were the Caps’ biggest stars during that 1997-98 season, Juneau was the biggest hero. He achieved that distinction at the 6:24 mark of overtime when he grabbed a rebound of Brian Bellows’ shot and stuck the puck under the glove of Sabres star goalie Dominik Hasek as the Buffalo crowd blanched in horror.

If it had been a baseball game, somebody might have yowled, “Caps win! Caps win! Caps win!” As it was, most of the hysteria came several hours later when the players arrived at their Piney Orchard practice facility in Odenton, Md., to pick up their cars and go home.

“Thousands of people were waiting for us at 2:30 in the morning,” Juneau said yesterday, still marveling at the turnout. “It was very special. It was great. It was something else - definitely the high point of my time in Washington.”

As it turned out, that also was the high point of Joe’s 16-year career. He spent six seasons with the Caps all told, but after leaving late in the 1998-99 campaign he practically skated all around the NHL: one year each in Buffalo, Ottawa and Phoenix and three in Montreal before retiring in 2004 at age 36.

Versatility was Juneau’s thing on the ice. He was basically a playmaker on attack, one who had an NHL-record 70 assists for a left wing and 102 points as a rookie for the Boston Bruins in 1992-93. But in Washington, his primary role was as a gritty defensive hand particularly valuable in penalty-killing situations. He never scored more than 15 goals in a season, but nobody was complaining.

That 1997-98 regular season was passing strange for Juneau and his team. Injuries held Joe to just 56 games and reduced his output to nine goals and 31 points while the Caps went 40-30-12, good for the No. 5 seed in the Eastern playoffs.

Then it became obvious that somebody up there liked the Caps, and I don’t mean just Abe Pollin. When top seeds New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia failed to survive the first round, the way was open for coach Ron Wilson’s gang to storm through the conference, which they giddily did. On the way to the finals, Washington dispatched Boston in six games, Ottawa in five and Buffalo in six.

Why does it all seem so long ago?

Probably because it was.

Nowadays Joe lives in Kuujjuaq, Quebec, where he runs what he calls “a social and hockey program” for Inuit children - a pursuit he finds at least as enjoyable as swinging sticks and bashing heads while thousands cheer. He also has abandoned, at least temporarily, an old desire to mush a team of huskies in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

“I’d still love to do it,” he conceded, “but I don’t see myself having time.”

The idea of Juneau coaching kids or anybody else might amuse longtime Caps fans because he was known as something of a free spirit when he wore a Washington sweater.

“It’s funny, but when you become a coach you start to think differently,” he said. “Now I sometimes hear [positive] echoes of things my coaches said that I didn’t think made sense at the time.”

It also doesn’t make much sense that it has been another decade since he lifted the Caps to their highest level. Last season’s revival and brief playoff appearance under Bruce Boudreau notwithstanding, this remains a star-crossed team - one that started life with an 8-67-5 record in 1974-75 and subsequently has never established itself as a bona fide NHL power.

So we should remain grateful for small blessings - and for Joe Juneau.

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