With the NHL season on pause due to the coronavirus, we’re digging into the archives for a look back at some great moments in Capitals history.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll present a series of ‘This Date in Capitals History’ features.
We continue with April 6:
April 6, 1975: Stan Gilbertson recorded the first four-goal game in franchise history as the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 8-4 in the final game of Washington’s inaugural season.
Tommy Williams had two goals and four assists in the season finale and finished as the Capitals leading scorer across the board with team-high totals of 22 goals, 36 assists and 58 points. With the win, the Capitals completed their expansion season with an 8-67-5 record.
April 6, 1983: The Capitals made their Stanley Cup playoff debut with an opening round matchup against the New York Islanders. The Islanders took the series opener 5-2 in New York with Bobby Gould accounting for both Washington goals.
Gould played an even 600 regular-season games with the Capitals from 1981 through 1989, but one of his personal NHL highlights came in Washington’s first playoff game.
“One of the things that I kind of cherish is you don’t get your name too often in the record books,” Gould said in 2016. “But I know when I went back many years ago, to see the Caps new practice facility, they have the history of the team displayed on the walls, and one of the things that is kind of neat is that I was fortunate enough to score the very first playoff goal for the Capitals when we finally made it. It’s a feat that nobody else is going to ever accomplish.”
Gould scored twice more in Game 2, including the Capitals’ first game-winning goal in postseason play, as Washington evened the series at a game apiece with a 4-2 win.
New York took Games 3 and 4 in Landover by scores of 6-2 and 6-3 to close out the best-of-five series. Gould was the Capitals leading scorer that postseason with five goals in four games.
“Those are the little things that as a player who was a third and fourth liner, a checker, it’s kind of nice to be able to put your name in the record books.”
April 6, 2004: Despite owning the third best odds, the Capitals won the NHL’s draft lottery. Two months later they would select Alexander Ovechkin with the overall No. 1 pick.
More on this monumental day from George McPhee in the audio box below. Additional perspective and behind-the-scenes tales can be found in the book excerpt below as well.
April 6, 2013: Alex Ovechkin recorded the 12th hat-trick of his career as the Capitals beat the Florida Panthers 4-3 in Sunrise, FLA.
Ovechkin would finish the abbreviated 2012-13 season with a League-best 32 goals in 48 games.
More details and behind-the-scenes tales on the Capitals winning the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery can be found in ‘100 Things Capitals Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die.‘ An excerpt is included below.
BOOK EXCERPT – WINNING THE LOTTERY
The Capitals were coming off their worst season in 26 years- a forgetful 2003-04 campaign in which they won 23 of 82 games – when their fortunes forever changed with the bounce of a ping-pong ball on April 6, 2004.
Despite owning the third best odds of winning the 2004 NHL Draft Lottery at 14.2 percent, a Washington ball emerged from the hopper. For the third time in franchise history, and for the first time since 1976, the Capitals would pick first overall.
A Russian teenager named Alexander Ovechkin had burst onto the international scene two years earlier and had long been the projected number one pick. His countryman Evgeni Malkin was expected to go second overall- not a bad consolation prize for the Pittsburgh Penguins – but Ovechkin was really considered a generational talent.
The Capitals had indeed hit the jackpot.
“We hope today is the first day in a new era for the Capitals,” general manager George McPhee said that afternoon.
These days the NHL Draft Lottery has become an elaborate made-for-TV production, but back in 2004, the lottery was conducted privately at the NHL’s offices in New York.
It wasn’t exactly the type of the thing the Capitals could closely monitor as it was happening.
“I was at the practice facility at Piney Orchard,” McPhee recalled in 2017, “when [NHL Senior Vice President] Colin Campbell called. He didn’t tell me right away, but I had a feeling that he was calling me for a reason. But we were talking socially for five, six minutes and then he just said, ‘Oh, by the way, you won the lottery. Congratulations.’”
McPhee soon called Ross Mahoney, the team’s director of amateur scouting, and team president Dick Patrick.
“It was sort of an odd call,” Patrick said, “because we both pretty much had the same reaction, just kind of, ‘Oh, really? That really happened?’ Ovechkin was already on everybody’s radar back then, but so was Malkin. We knew we were getting a good player. We just didn’t know how good.
“It was a great feeling. It took all kinds of pressure off in a way, because we just had to take the best player. We didn’t have to worry about anything happening in front of us that could potentially impact us. It was in our control.”
McPhee was preparing for his seventh draft with the Capitals, but only once before did he have a top-10 pick. In 1999, the Capitals selected Kris Beech seventh overall. It was no comparison to what awaited in 2004.
“It was a very interesting moment,” McPhee said, “because we knew at that point that the top two guys in the draft were elite players. On our list, we had Ovechkin and Malkin there.”
Mahoney was at his home in Regina when McPhee called. The draft was still 81 days away, but Mahoney didn’t hesitate when McPhee asked for his initial impression.
“It’s got to be Ovechkin,” Mahoney told him.
“We still discussed it in a lot of detail,” McPhee said, “because Malkin is a hell of a player. But we thought that the combination of goals and physical play and enthusiasm that Ovechkin brought, that he had to be the guy.”
NHL scouts were first introduced to him at the 2002 World Under-18 Championships in Slovakia, where a then 16-year-old Ovechkin crushed the competition. Ovechkin was the tournament’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 18 points in eight games. Russia finished with a silver medal.
Months later he led Russia to a gold medal at the 2003 World Under-20 Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ovechkin had six goals in as many games.
“Most of us were at least a year two older than him,” said Brooks Laich, who played for Team Canada at the 2003 World Juniors. “He was still wearing the full-caged helmet, just a young kid, but you knew he was going to be a special player. He had a great World Junior tournament so I was aware of his abilities. He was a guy who could score big goals, but could also dominate the game physically and for a player at that young age, you don’t see that very often.”
In addition to his international experience, Ovechkin had also played parts of three professional seasons with Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Superleague. His goal, though, was to play in the NHL. With the Capitals winning the lottery, the team with the chance to select him was now known.
Laich was among some of Ovechkin’s future teammates, who were preparing for the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs with the Portland Pirates, the day the news spread through the organization.
“I remember being surprised,” Laich said. “I got a text message from a friend saying ‘Wow, you guys got the number one pick.’ And I was very surprised, but also very excited because I knew who was coming. What a pick! I didn’t think we were going to get it, but when we did get it, the cards just fell perfectly.”
“We knew we could only go up,” said Brian Willsie, who played 49 games for the last-place Capitals in 2003-04. “We were a basement dweller at that time. But after getting that number one pick, we were all excited for what the future held. You could see it right away with Alex, how amazing he was. But then the other guys that were coming in – Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Green and some of those guys. You could see the bright years that were ahead for Washington.”
Ovechkin was the headliner of the Capitals 2004 draft class, but he was also one of Washington’s three first-round picks. Thanks to trades completed during Washington’s 2003-04 fire sale, McPhee acquired first-round picks from the Boston Bruins (27th overall) and Detroit Red Wings (29th overall).
The picks were used on defensemen Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, who combined to play 874 career games with the Capitals.
SIDEBAR: COULD ALEX OVECHKIN HAVE BEEN A PHOENIX COYOTE?
The five teams with the five worst records from the 2003-04 season each had a shot at winning the 2004 draft lottery. The teams’ chances were weighed based on where they finished in the standings.
Below is a look at the teams involved, the odds they each carried and how the picks played out:
#1: Washington Capitals (14.2 percent): Alex Ovechkin: Capitals franchise scoring leader, first player from draft class to record 500 goals and 1,000 points.
#2: Pittsburgh Penguins (48.2 percent): Evgeni Malkin: 2x Stanley Cup champion, 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, 2012 Hart Trophy winner, 2x NHL leading scorer
#3: Chicago Blackhawks (18.8 percent): Cam Barker: The No.3 pick recorded 21 goals and 96 points in 310 career games with four teams. Last played in the NHL during the 2012-13 season.
#4: Columbus Blue Jackets (10.7 percent): Andrew Ladd: The Carolina Hurricanes acquired the fourth overall pick from Columbus for the eighth pick and the 58th pick. Carolina selected Ladd at No.4. He played 17 postseason games as a rookie for the 2005-06 Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes.
#5: Phoenix Coyotes (8.1 percent): Blake Wheeler: Did not sign with Phoenix. Made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins in October 2008.