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When Caps Were King For a Day

If you read today’s edition of “This Date In Caps History,” you know it’s a noteworthy one. Today marks the 15th anniversary of the team’s final game at USAir Arena (née Capital Centre) and the retirement of the No. 5 jersey of defenseman Rod Langway, now a Hockey Hall of Famer known to Caps fans as “Secretary of Defense.” I spent a little bit of time perusing the archives today, and found another interesting event from the team’s nascent days, a time when good hockey was hard to find in these parts. After starting their NHL life with a dismal 8-67-5 mark in their inaugural season of 1974-75, the Capitals started their sophomore season of 1975-76 with just two wins in their first 21 games (2-17-2). The 1974-75 bunch posted a 1-39 road record, but ironically, each of the team’s first two wins of ’75-76 came away from the District (at Chicago and Kansas City). You could say that the ’75-76 Caps were “bleeding goals against,” and you wouldn’t be exaggerating. Washington surrendered four or more goals in 17 of its first 21 games that season, averaging more than five goals against per game during that span. The Los Angeles Kings came to town for a Nov. 26, 1975 date with the Capitals at Capital Centre in Landover. The game was a Norris Division match-up; the Caps and Kings shared membership in that division in those days with Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Veteran Los Angeles netminder Rogatien Vachon had limited the Caps to a combined total of just five goals in five games going into that contest, and Washington was seeking to halt a nine-game winless streak (0-8-1). The Caps crowned Vachon and the Kings, 7-2. Washington dented the stellar Los Angeles netminder seven times on just 21 shots for a victory of some magnitude. Here’s how Russ White of The Washington Star opened his game story in the Nov. 27 edition of the paper:
“Today is Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July for the Washington Capitals ice hockey team, which is celebrating its first home victory of the season, its first victory of November and its most resounding victory ever.”
Not many were on hand to witness Washington’s win; the crowd of 6,282 was the smallest in franchise history at the time. Rookie Tony White scored twice, including the first goal of the game at the 20-second mark, the fastest goal the Caps had ever scored from game’s outset at that time. Sophomore defenseman Greg Joly, the team’s first-ever NHL Entry Draft choice and the first player taken overall in the 1974 NHL Entry Draft struggled through a rookie season marred by injury and ineffectiveness. But Joly came up big against the Kings, scoring a shorthanded goal and coming in for some postgame praise from head coach and general manager Milt Schmidt. “By far the best hockey he has ever given us,” said Schmidt of Joly’s performance that night. Schmidt didn’t reserve his kudos for just Joly, either. “This team played well tonight,” he said. “It was the finest hockey the Caps have ever played. And, I take pride in saying that.” Unfortunately for the Caps and Schmidt, it would be a long, long time before he – or anyone, for that matter – would be able to utter laudatory words about the Capitals. The team’s next victory would not come for nearly two months, and Schmidt would be relieved of his duties after 14 more games, more than halfway through what remains the longest winless streak in franchise history (25 games, 0-22-3).