The 5 Best Washington Capitals of the 1990s

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIINovember 9, 2013

The 5 Best Washington Capitals of the 1990s

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    For the Washington Capitals, the 1990s held a bit of everything.

    The decade began with the Caps coming off their first-ever trip to the then-Wales Conference Final. The Caps had been swept by the Boston Bruins in that playoff series, but there was hope that after so many playoff failures in the 1980s, perhaps the team was ready to break through.

    But in the 1990-91 Patrick Division Final, the Caps would be defeated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. This was the beginning of the Capitals versus Penguins rivalry, a rivalry that has been decidedly one-sided in the Pens' favor.

    The Caps would meet the Pens in the playoffs six times during the 1990s, and the Penguins would win five of those matchups. In three of the five series the Caps lost, they blew two-game leads. They also lost a four-overtime game to the Penguins along the way.

    In the 1996-97 season, the Caps' run of 14 straight playoff appearances came to a halt.

    Not much was expected from the team for the 1997-98 season. But instead, the Caps stunned everyone by making it to their only Stanley Cup Final in team history before they were unceremoniously swept by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.

    The 1990s saw the Capitals have three different head coaches and also saw the team leave the dungeon-like confines of the Capital Centre to the much more modernized Verizon Center.

    Not surprisingly, many players came and went for the Capitals during the 1990s. Some were obviously better than others. But along the way, some of the best players in the history of the franchise played during the 1990s.

    Which ones were the best? Here is a listing of the top five players for the Washington Capitals during the 1990s.

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we get to the top five, lets take a look at some Honorable Mentions because there were some great players left off of the main list.

    Some of these names will be very familiar to Caps fans, and one might make a valid case that they should have been in the top five.

    Some of these players were left off the main list primarily because their best seasons were not really with the Caps. They all had great moments during the 1990s. But when you compare their body of work to the five best players of the decade, I felt that these guys came up a little bit short.


    Adam Oates

    The current head coach of the Capitals had some productive years in D.C. during the '90s. Oates played in Washington from 1996-2002 and was an integral part of the 1997-98 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. During the 1990s, Oates had 49 goals and 164 assists with the Capitals.

    But those numbers are nothing compared to the numbers Oates put up in the earlier part of the decade while playing for the Boston Bruins.

    For instance, Oates' best season ever was during the 1992-93 season with the Bruins, when he scored 45 goals and had 97 assists for a career high 142 points.

    By contrast, his best season in D.C. during the '90s was in 1997-98, when Oates had 18 goals and 58 assists for 76 points.

    Oates is one of the best players ever and one of the better players of the 1990s. But most of his damage was done playing for teams other than the Washington Capitals.


    Kevin Hatcher

    Kevin Hatcher was one of the better defenders in the history of the Washington Capitals. But the bulk of his career in D.C. took place in the mid-1980s.

    Still, Hatcher's best season, statistically speaking, was the 1992-93 season when he scored 34 goals and had 45 assists. In fact, though Hatcher played more seasons with the Caps during the 1980s than the 1990s, he was far more productive in the '90s.

    But by the 1994-95 season, Hatcher's tenure in Washington was over. He finished out his career playing for the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes.

    As good as Hatcher was, when you match his career up against someone like Calle Johansson's, Hatcher just was not quite up to par.


    Joe Juneau

    Joe Juneau scored what might be the biggest goal in Capitals history with his goal in Game 6 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Final against the Buffalo Sabres.

    Despite that one glorious moment, Juneau was never really all that spectacular for the Caps.

    He was a good player, no doubt about that. But it would be a stretch to call him a great player.

    Juneau played in Washington from 1993 to 1999. During that time, Juneau scored 62 goals and had 172 assists. His best season in D.C. was the 1995-96 season, when Juneau scored 14 goals and had 50 assists.

    Those are very solid numbers, but that's nowhere near the year Juneau had with the Boston Bruins in 1992-93 when he scored 32 goals, added 70 assists and had 102 points.

    Overall, I just don't believe Juneau was one of the greatest players of the 1990s for the Caps.


    Dale Hunter

    Of all the people left off the main list, I struggled with Dale Hunter the most.

    Hunter is, after all, one of the most popular players in franchise history. His goal in Game 7 of the Caps' 1988 playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers is right up there with Juneau's goal against the Sabres or Joel Ward's Game 7 winner against the Boston Bruins as one of the most iconic goals in Caps history.

    It got even harder to leave Hunter off the list when one considers that his best season ever was during the 1992-93 campaign, when Hunter scored 20 goals and had 59 assists for a career high 79 points.

    But it was what happened after that regular season that swayed me to leave Hunter on the Honorable Mention list.

    The problem began with the check Hunter laid on the New York Islander's Pierre Turgeon in Game 6 of the 1993 Patrick Division Semifinal, generally regarded as one of the biggest cheap shots in NHL playoff history.

    Hunter had to serve a 21-game suspension for that hit.

    His production for the Caps was never quite the same after that. He would score only 52 more goals for the remainder of his career with Washington.

    Of course, Hunter had a lot of intangibles which aren't accounted for by pure stats, such as his leadership and toughness.

    But when you look at Hunter's entire career, and particularly during the 1980s which began with the Quebec Nordiques and ended up with the Caps, one could argue that his best years were in the 1980s and not the 1990s.

    Relegating Hunter to an Honorable Mention was a tough call. But compared to the other players on this list, I think it was the right call to make.

5. Mike Ridley

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    Mike Ridley might have had his best seasons as a member of the Washington Capitals in the late 1980s, but that does not diminish the fact that Ridley was one of the most consistent players for the Caps during the 1990s.

    When Bobby Carpenter was traded to the New York Rangers during the 1986-87 season, one of the players the Washington Capitals got back in return was Ridley.

    Ridley would go on to score at least 20 goals in each season when he was in Washington, except for the initial season when he arrived at the mid-point of the season (he still scored 31 goals total that year).

    Ridley's best season was the 1988-89 campaign, when he scored 41 goals and tallied 48 assists. Ridley's efforts led the Caps to the Patrick Division championship that season. Alas, the team faltered in the playoffs again, getting eliminated in the opening round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

    Once the new decade began, Ridley did not slow down. In his four seasons with the Caps in the 1990s, Ridley scored 104 goals, added 188 assists and had a total of 292 points.

    Ridley was also effective during the playoffs those four seasons. In 35 playoff games played, Ridley had eight goals, 26 assists and 34 points.

    His best season of the 1990s was the 1992-93 campaign. Ridley scored 26 goals and added 56 assists that year. His 82 points that season marked his second-best career performance, second only to the 1988-89 season.

    What made Ridley so effective? It was a combination of lots of little things.

    He was always very creative with the puck, and he worked tirelessly at improving his game. During his eight seasons in Washington, Ridley became a focal point of the Caps offense.

    Ridley was not just a great player of the 1990s though. Among Capitals players all-time, he ranks seventh in points, ninth in assists and fourth in goals with 218. Ridley also boasted an impressive .93 points-per-game average during his tenure in Washington.

    Not too bad at all for an undrafted free agent.

4. Calle Johansson

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    Here is a trivia question for you.

    Who has played in more games than anyone else in the history of the Washington Capitals?

    It might surprise you to learn that the answer is Calle Johansson, one of the Caps' current assistant coaches.

    Johansson never drew the headlines the way Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher or Sergei Gonchar did, but he was every bit as important to the Caps defense as any of those high-profile players.

    From 1989 to 2003, Johansson played in a franchise-record 983 games. During the 1990s, Johansson played in 732 of those games.

    One would not usually consider Johansson a prolific goal scorer. Still, Johansson holds the franchise records for points by a defenseman with 474, along with the franchise record for assists by a defenseman with 361. He ranks third on the Caps in goals scored by a defenseman with 113.

    Much of this damage was done during the 1990s, when Johansson scored 92 goals and added 282 assists for 374 points.

    While the 2000-01 season might have been Johansson's best season statistically, the magical season of 1997-98 was when he was at his best. Johansson had a career high in goals that year with 15, adding 20 assists.

    Johansson was very effective during the Caps' run to the Stanley Cup Final. He had two goals and eight assists in the playoffs. All told, Johansson played in more playoff games (95) and scored more points during the playoffs (54) than any other Caps defender in history.

    He might not have been the household name that some other Caps defenders were, but Johansson was one of the best Caps defensemen ever and easily one of the best Caps players of the 1990s.

3. Michal Pivonka

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    In my opinion, Michal Pivonka is one of the most underrated players in the history of the Washington Capitals.

    Here is a man who played his entire NHL career with the Caps after defecting to the United States just to do so. Once he got there, Pivonka became one of the most reliable and consistent producers on the Caps.

    During the 1990s, Pivonka truly left his mark on the franchise.

    In nine seasons, he scored 98 goals and added 310 assists for 398 points. On two occasions, in 1991-92 and again in 1995-96, Pivonka led the Caps in scoring. The best season of Pivonka's career came during that 1995-96 campaign, when he had 16 goals and 65 assists for 81 points.

    Pivonka was also solid during the playoffs in the 1990s. He played in 57 games, scoring nine goals and adding 23 assists. While those are not earth-shattering numbers, it would be hard to argue with just how much Pivonka meant to the team during a tumultuous decade.

    When his career with the Caps was over, Pivonka ranked in the Washington top 10 in several categories, including fifth in games played (825), 10th in goals (181) and fourth in points (599).

    The most important stat, though, is that Pivonka is the franchise leader in career assists with 418. Even with all the great players who have donned a Caps uniform, Pivonka has the most assists.

    It is an overlooked stat from a player who, in my opinion, is somewhat overlooked by Caps fans and by historians alike.

    Pivonka was as central to the Caps' success and failures as anyone in the 1990s. His consistent performance during the decade puts him at No. 3 on the list.

2. Olaf Kolzig

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    There has never been a goalie quite like Olaf Kolzig for the Caps.

    "Olie the Goalie" holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of the Caps' faithful. In fact, in 2004 to celebrate the Caps' 30th year in the league, the fans voted on the top 30 players in franchise history.

    Olie was No. 1.

    What can you say about the amazing career of Kolzig? Although Kolzig played in a backup role for the Caps from 1992 to 1997, it was the magical season of 1997-98 when Olie solidified himself as the Caps starting goaltender—and made himself a legend among Caps' fans.

    That was the season when Kolzig led the Caps to the Stanley Cup Final, outplaying Dominik Hasek along the way. He compiled a record of 33-18-10 that season with five shutouts, a 2.20 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. His .920 save percentage remains a record for a Caps goaltender for one season.

    During the Caps' memorable playoff run, he went 12-9, with four more shutouts, a minuscule 1.95 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage.

    Kolzig would then remain the Caps' starting netminder through the 2007-08 season. For the remainder of the 1990s, Kolzig emerged as one the best goalies in the NHL. He would play in 137 games the next two seasons and posted a record of 67-51-14 with a goals-against average of 2.41 and a .909 save percentage.

    While his tremendous career would continue on well into the 2000s, the foundation for that career was born in the late 1990s.

    He compiled a record of 301-293-63-23 during his career with the Caps with 36 shutouts, a career goals-against average of 2.71 and a career save percentage of .906.

    In the playoffs, Kolzig posted a record of 20-24 with seven shutouts, a 2.14 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage.

    While it can obviously be argued that the bulk of Kolzig's career with the Caps took place during the 2000s and not the 1990s, I think Kolzig deserves to be ranked this high. Anytime a team can find a starting goaltender who can anchor that position at the level that Kolzig did for a decade, that is a huge moment in the evolution of the franchise.

    That is what happened to the Washington Capitals during the 1997-98 season. Not only did the Caps find a top-notch starting goaltender, they found their greatest goalie of all time.

1. Peter Bondra

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    Peter Bondra was one of the greatest snipers ever to play for the Washington Capitals. He is also one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise.

    From 1990 to 2004, Bondra was to the Caps what Alex Ovechkin is to the present-day team. Similar to Ovi, it was Bondra who would draw the opposition's attention, forcing him to deal with double-teams and similar tactics.

    It never seemed to faze him.

    Bondra was one of the finest skaters ever to play for the Caps. He had amazing acceleration, a nasty slap shot and fantastic accuracy. He was absolutely deadly with one-timers.

    Except for his initial season in Washington, Bondra always scored at least 20 goals. Statistically, his best season was in 1992-93 when Bondra scored 37 goals and had 48 assists for 85 points.

    But his best work probably came during the 1997-98 campaign, a season near and dear to the hearts of Caps fans. It was during that magical year that Bondra's popularity soared, and he became the most dangerous player on the team.

    During the 1997-98 season, Bondra led the NHL with 52 goals. But in the playoffs, Bondra took things to the next level. He scored seven goals and had five assists as the Caps reached the Stanley Cup Final for the only time in their history.

    A key moment during that memorable playoff run was watching Bondra outduel Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference Final. Unfortunately, Bondra could not carry the Caps all the way, and the team was swept by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.

    Still, Peter Bondra is one of the best players in Caps history. He is the all-time franchise leader in goals (472) and points (825). He also ranks seventh in assists. It is hard to fathom that he was drafted 156th by the Caps in 1990.

    The bulk of his body of work was done during the 1990s, when he scored 337 of those goals and tallied 583 of those points.

    Bondra's record speaks for itself, and there are many Caps fans eagerly anticipating the day when Bondra's jersey will be retired and hung from the rafters of the Verizon Center.

    Based on pure numbers alone, there is really no one close to Bondra when it comes to the greatest players of the 1990s for the Washington Capitals.