- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2020

“Overlooked” revisits some of the underappreciated highlights of Washington sports history. Today’s entry: The 1989-1990 Capitals, the franchise’s first team to make the conference finals.

The Washington Capitals had an agonizing introduction to the NHL. They didn’t qualify for their first postseason until their ninth year in the NHL. Even after they became a regular playoff team — and stop us if this sounds familiar — they spent years unable to get past the second round.

That changed in 1990. All it took was swapping one brother for another at head coach and a fourth-liner’s improbable outburst of playoff goals, among other things.

Even though they finished under .500, at 36-38-6, the Capitals squeaked into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After years of taking first or second place in the Patrick Division but falling short in April, it was time to flip the script.

“We were like underdogs, really,” Rod Langway said. “We weren’t favorites like years past. So maybe it made some players feel a lot easier with a ‘we have nothing to lose’ type attitude.”

O brother, where art thou

Alan May had played a handful of NHL games for Boston and Edmonton before the Capitals acquired him in a trade. But 1989-1990 was his official rookie year, and he was in the mix from the get-go as an enforcer for the third and fourth lines. He still can remember the excitement of starting on opening night, a win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

But a string of injuries threatened to derail the season early on. It got so bad that coach Bryan Murray needed to use May, a winger, out of position because most of the team’s regular blueliners were hurt.

“I remember playing against Vancouver one night and they had me back on defense,” May, now a Capitals analyst for NBC Sports Washington, said with a laugh. “We just had so many guys that normally wouldn’t kill a penalty were killing penalties, and they were just trying to rotate (us).”

The Capitals were mired in an eight-game losing streak in January 1990 when general manager David Poile decided to pull the trigger and fire Murray. Langway, May and Scott Stevens all feel to this day that Murray shouldn’t have been fired, pointing to the pile of injuries out of the coach’s control. Stevens said the players were caught a bit off-guard by the move.

But the most notable part of the decision was who was tapped to replace Murray: his own brother, Terry.

At the time, Terry Murray was the coach of Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks. According to news reports from 1990, Poile said there was a long pause on the other end of the telephone line when he offered the younger Murray the gig.

“I think Terry just came in and he knew he was in a tough position,” Langway said. “It’s unusual that a brother comes in and takes your job.”

In Terry Murray’s first game behind the bench, Washington snapped its losing streak in spectacular fashion, beating the New Jersey Devils 9-6.

As May tells it, Terry Murray challenged some of the beliefs in the locker room and did more to explain the jargon, the “why” behind what players were told to do on the ice. With his even-keeled emotional style and crisp communication, players quickly bought in.

In team meetings, May was often struck by how much Murray looked and sounded like his fired brother.

“Almost everything was identical except what came out of the coach’s mouth,” May said.

Druce gets loose

Before the playoffs began, May said, Murray made up placards for every player on the roster emphasizing their roles and what they meant to the team. It helped guys to buy in and coalesce as a group.

“There’s no question we were tired of not advancing and not going farther in the playoffs,” Stevens said.

But some players outperformed their roles and expectations — namely, John Druce.

Known as a fourth-line defensive specialist, Druce wasn’t a regular starter when the season began. He managed eight goals and three assists in 45 regular-season appearances. But he exploded in the playoffs, leading Washington with 17 points (14 goals and three assists) in 15 games.

For context, when Alex Ovechkin led the Capitals to the 2018 Stanley Cup, he scored 15 goals — in 24 games.

“John Druce got hot, and everything that touched his stick went in the net, it seemed like,” Langway said.

Druce became a folk hero for Washington, and a recurring nightmare for New York Rangers fans. After the Capitals got by the Devils in six games in the first round, Druce poured in nine goals in a five-game series against the Mark Messier-led Rangers — including the overtime winner in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, no less, to clinch the series for the Capitals.

The series began with a 7-3 beatdown by heavily-favored New York. “We should’ve lost about 20-3,” May said.

But Druce caught fire and the Capitals took control. Recalling the celebration in the locker room afterward, Langway said it was one of the better feelings in his Capitals career.

“Originally I was very proud of what happened there, but I played 14 years of professional hockey, so I thought, ‘Jeez, I did more than that,’” Druce told the Washington Post in 2009, regarding his legacy. “I’ve come to realize that’s kind of my calling card. I’m very proud of it, and this time of year (the postseason) comes around and it’s nice.”

What could have been

In hindsight, this Capitals team was stacked with talent. Defensemen Stevens and Langway and winger Dino Ciccarelli, who scored 41 goals that season, are now in the Hall of Fame. There were fan favorites like May, center Dale Hunter and defenseman Calle Johansson. Kevin Hatcher was coming into his own as an all-around defenseman, someone Langway and May praised up and down 30 years later.

But during the Rangers series, both Ciccarelli and Hatcher suffered knee injuries — “Both were cheap shots,” May said — that took them out for the playoffs.

Stevens, now an NHL Network analyst, was playing through a shoulder injury. Knowing hockey culture, he was hardly alone. So the Boston Bruins had little trouble sweeping the Capitals in the Prince of Wales Conference Finals.

The core of that roster would not get another shot together. Geoff Courtnall, the Capitals’ second-leading point-getter in 1989-90, requested a trade. But the biggest loss was Stevens.

As a restricted free agent, Stevens signed a four-year, $5.145 million contract with the St. Louis Blues — a massive deal for the NHL at that time. The Capitals had the option to match it but declined, preferring the haul of first-round draft picks they’d receive as compensation.

Stevens had hoped the Capitals would match the offer.

Washington gave me the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. So I guess I was hoping to stay in Washington, a place where we’ve had success,” Stevens said. “We turned the corner and made the playoffs every year, we were going in the right direction, so it would have been fun to stay. But things happen, and I signed with St. Louis and that was the end for the Washington Capitals and me.”

“That was a huge loss and there was a bitterness that we lost (Stevens),” May said. “He was such an important guy. This franchise took years to win a Stanley Cup. It probably would have been a lot sooner had he never left.”

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