The Wayback Machine: Double OT Victories in New Arena
Only three times in team history have the Capitals won back-to-back games in overtime. Twelve years ago this week, the Capitals opened up a new area in style, recording a second consecutive overtime victory thanks to a goal in extra time from an unlikely source.
But first, on Dec. 2, 1997, the Capitals, winless in their last three games, were in New York to face the Rangers. With a record of 6-9-4 in their previous 19 games after a 7-1-0 start, the Caps were due for a victory to turn the tide for first-year head coach Ron Wilson.
Playing without leading scorer Peter Bondra, nursing an ankle injury, the Capitals had a tough task against a high-powered Rangers team that had made the Eastern Conference finals the previous year.
Behind goals from Chris Simon and Calle Johansson, the Caps were seconds away from heading into the third period with a 2-1 lead. But Wayne Gretzky, in his second year with the Rangers, tapped in a cross-ice feed past Olie Kolzig with seven seconds left in the period to tie the contest at 2-2.
“It’s embarrassing not to know that Wayne Gretzky is on the ice and he’s an open man,” Wilson said after the game.
Kolzig, who would be named an NHL All-Star in his first full season as Capitals goaltender, preserved the tie in the third period. Kolzig came up with a key stop on a two-on-one shot from Mike Keane with three seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.
In OT, Joe Juneau snapped a month-long scoring drought, beating Mike Richter with just over a minute left to play to give the Caps a 2-1 win.
Three days later, on Dec. 5, 1997, the Capitals were back in D.C. to open up their new Chinatown arena against the Florida Panthers. The team checked into a downtown hotel after a morning skate to avoid any traffic coming to the game.
A pregame ceremony featured Capitals alumni, as former players put on new Capitals jerseys bearing their numbers and names. Commissioner Gary Bettman and Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper looked on as team owner Abe Pollin welcomed the crowd.
“I hope all of you will be here when we carry that Stanley Cup around,” Pollin said.
Playing without Bondra for the second straight game, and perhaps a little tentative under the bright lights of opening night, the Capitals were sluggish from the start, outshot 11-2 by the Panthers in the opening period and behind 1-0 on the scoreboard.
But Richard Zednik and Simon would net goals for the Capitals, and game would head into overtime with the teams tied at 2-2. On this night, the Caps’ hero was an unlikely one.
Claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay, Jeff Toms had missed practice in the days leading up to the game to collect his remaining belongings in Florida.
Toms, who would go on to score 22 goals over his NHL career, would etch his name in team history with the game-winning goal.
Toms poked the puck free from Florida’s Paul Laus to create a 2-on-1 opportunity with Dale Hunter. Toms kept the puck and fired it past John Vanbiesbrouck to give the Capitals their second consecutive overtime victory, and their first in the new building.
“This is the best feeling in the world when you win in overtime – the other team doesn’t have a chance to tie it,” Wilson said. “It’s an exhilarating feeling.”