LAS VEGAS – The Washington Capitals have played exactly 3,700 games since they were born in 1974, counting regular season and playoffs. They never have played any as significant as the one that will be staged Thursday night in T-Mobile Arena.
The Capitals lead the Stanley Cup final, three games to one, and can finally grab the Cup for the first time in their history with a win over the Vegas Golden Knights. They spent Wednesday practicing here for a shade under an hour and then trying to say how they're approaching it like a regular game.
Good luck with that.
"Most of us have never been in this position," said Alex Ovechkin, who can climb to the game's summit for the first time in his 13 seasons. "For me personally, I don’t try to think too much about what’s going on and just try focusing on different things. But it’s hard.”
"With the extra day, you get all your ticket requests out of the way two days before, which is helpful," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose 2009 Cup title with Pittsburgh is the only one in the Washington dressing room. "You try to treat it normal and not get ahead of yourself. But it's only natural you try to picture what might happen or imagine what might happen. ... A lot of guys do visualization things in a positive way and I think it's extra healthy."
For a team on the verge of winning its first Cup, the Caps have a crazy franchise history. Folks in recent times know them from the Ovechkin era, where great regular seasons died an agonizing death in the playoffs. But it's easy to forget, especially in the massive hype surrounding the historic first year of the Golden Knights, how the Caps were the poster boys for how bad expansion can truly be.
More than four decades later, the numbers still amaze. Many still stand as all-time standards for futility.
The 1974-75 Caps went 8-67-5 that first season, collecting an NHL-record low 21 points. They scored 181 goals and gave up 446, for a league-record minus-265 differential. They went 1-39 on the road and finished 92 points behind first-place Montreal in the Norris Division. The lone road win was in March, a 5-3 triumph over the California Golden Seals before an announced crowd of 3,933 that ended an 0-37 run.
As the story goes, there was a trash can in the visitors dressing room at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and it was green and gold, the original color of the Seals. Washington players signed it with a sharpie and held it aloft over their heads like it was the Stanley Cup before some players, led by veteran Ace Bailey, took it out on the ice and briefly paraded it around.
Things obviously could be far different Thursday night.
Back in '74-75, starting goalie Ron Low went 8-36-2 with a 5.45 goals-against average and .855 save percentage. Backup Michel Belhumeur went 0-24-3 -- yes, he went winless -- and posted numbers of .536/.861. Defenseman Bill Mikkelson had three goals in 59 games -- and an all-time plus-minus mark of minus-82.
The Caps gave up double figures in goal seven times and lost by at least 10 four times, including 12-1 losses in both Pittsburgh and Boston.
That first year, the Cup final-bound Sabres beat the Caps by scores of 7-3, 5-3, 9-2, 4-0 and 9-4. The shutout came three days before Christmas and the Caps earned coal in their stockings by giving up three short-handed goals -- two to Don Luce on the same second-period penalty. It prompted Capital Center fans near the press box to yell, "decline the penalty" when further infractions were called.
There were losing streaks of 17, 10 and 9 games, with the 17-gamer still standing as the NHL record. There were winless streaks of 14, 11, 17 and 17 again. There were no two-game winning streaks.
Things were only marginally better in Year Two as the Caps were 11-59-10 in the 1975-76 season, improving from 21 points to 32. And hey, the road record jumped to 5-33-2 and the goal differential was only minus-170. But a minus-12 of those came on Dec, 21, 1975, in the Aud when the Sabres plastered the Caps, 14-2, to set a team victory margin that still stands. Yes, 14-2.
The Sabres pummeled the expansion Caps more than any other club in those early years, winning the first six meetings and going 12-0-1 before finally losing a game. As it turned out, Washington beat Buffalo just twice in its first 42 meetings, with the Sabres going 34-2-6.
The Caps didn't make the playoffs in their first eight seasons – never breaking 70 points or getting more than 27 wins in any of them. Imagine folks in Vegas having to deal with that. Washington won one playoff series in its first 11 years and after it finally broke through on a deep run and was swept by Detroit in the 1998 Cup final, the Caps didn't win a single series for another 10 years.
In the first five years of Ovechkin's career, they won one postseason series. They entered this year just 6-9 in series matchups in Ovechkin's first 12 seasons, having never cracked the second round despite seven 100-point seasons with the Great Eight on the roster.
All that sordid history. All those recent disappointments. All can be washed away with one more win, which would be No. 1,707 in franchise annals.
"You may never get to this moment again. You don't know," said coach Barry Trotz. "So why make it tense and stressful and all that? You have to resepct the process, respect what you need to do to be successful. But enjoy it. Live in the moment. This is not going to happen too often. Some of my best friends have never had this moment. They're still waiting for it."
Ovechkin has 14 goals in this playoff run, tied for the franchise record, but has opened as many eyes with his 200-foot game and willingness to give his body up in shotblocking as well.
"It’s a great time, probably the best time in my life hockey-wise," Ovechkin said. "We're just enjoying it together, this moment. It’s fun.”
"That's the next level when it comes to leading a team and he's there right now," said winger T.J. Oshie. "I think any time there's a player that has an elite skill set, a player of his stature who's the best goal scorer I've ever seen with my own eyes, you can try to get by just scoring goals. When you see a guy like that put in extra efforts to block shots, make the right puck decision, backcheck, all the things that some of the more role players are really great at doing, you have to think to yourself that if he's doing that I have to get on board."
Ovechkin said he'll be trying to distract his mind with thoughts of cars, among other things. But like he said, it won't be easy. Many of the Caps will likely stay with Mario Kart, like they have much of the playoffs.
What did the Great Eight have planned the night before the biggest game of his life?
“I don’t know. Chill," Ovechkin said. "What else can you do?”