One small shot led to one giant leap for the Capitals.
Fifteen years ago today, Caps forward Joé Juneau scored the goal that propelled Washington to its first – and so far, its only – Stanley Cup final appearance. In overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final series against the Sabres in Buffalo, the opportunistic Juneau tapped a loose puck past Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek to send the Caps to the final against the Detroit Red Wings.
It was a Thursday night. Juneau was playing on a line with Adam Oates and Brian Bellows. Bellows took the puck from Oates along the left wing wall at the Buffalo line. He drove down the left wing, then cut a hard right toward the net. Juneau lurked high in the zone, but as he saw Bellows make his power move to the cage, the speedy forward galloped hard toward the right post.
Hasek made the initial save on Bellows, but was unable to corral the rebound. Juneau pounced on it and tucked it home, ending the game at 6:24 of overtime and giving Washington a 3-2 win.
The goal was Juneau’s sixth of the playoffs and his fourth game-winner.
“Everybody wants to be a hero in a game like this,” said Juneau after the contest. “I really believed our line was going to end up scoring the winning goal.”
Before the game, Caps coach Ron Wilson tried to inspire his players, telling them that Washington going to the final was akin to man landing on the moon.
“Who is going to be Neil Armstrong?” challenged Wilson.
“He came up with a really good story,” said Juneau of Wilson. “It was probably one of the best I have ever heard from a coach. All the guys had it in their minds all day long. And it came up a couple of times.”
Juneau, who earned a degree in aeronautic engineering at R.P.I., embraced the role.
“I said we were going to need a Neil Armstrong,” said Wilson after the game. “And Joé Juneau said, ‘I’ll be Neil Armstrong. I’m probably the only guy in here who knows who he is.’ Literally, he says, ‘I’m a rocket scientist.’”
Before taking the ice at the start of overtime, Juneau caught the eye of Caps assistant coach Tim Army and said, “You’re looking at Neil Armstrong.”
Juneau was the hero that night, but the Caps had key contributors up and down the lineup. Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig might have won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring if only Washington had been able to steal a game or two from the Red Wings in the final. Detroit swept Washington in four straight to earn its second straight Cup title. The Wings (in 1997 and 1998) remain the last team to win consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
Kolzig was 12-9 in the playoffs in 1998, posting four shutouts, a 1.95 GAA and a .941 save pct.
Juneau and Oates tied for the team lead in scoring with 17 points each. Juneau, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Richard Zednik tied for the team lead with seven playoff goals each that spring. Defenseman Calle Johansson led the Caps with a plus-9 defensive rating.
Oates is now the Capitals’ head coach; his staff includes Kolzig (associate goaltending coach) and Johansson (assistant coach).
Oates was in his 13th season, Johansson his 11th, team captain Dale Hunter his 18th, Kelly Miller his 14th, Joe Reekie his 13th, Craig Berube his 13th and Phil Housley in his 16th season. All were finally headed to the Cup final for the first time in their NHL careers.
“A lot of older guys – Adam Oates, myself – have played a long time to reach this point in the playoffs,” said Housley. “It just feels unbelievable. I thought we played a great game in Game 5 but didn’t win it because of Dominik. This time was finally our time.”
Months before Juneau’s clutch goal, the Caps moved from their suburban Maryland birthplace to their new digs in downtown Washington, D.C. Juneau came to Washington in a 1994 trade with the Bruins, and he now sees the Caps’ downtown move as essential.
“It was the start of a change,” recalled Juneau on a recent visit to the District, “coming from the old Caps Centre. Coming from Boston, coming from a big sports town and a big hockey town to Washington, it really was not the same environment at all. Moving downtown, we sensed and felt something was changing.”
That change took the better part of a decade.
Washington opened the 1998 Stanley Cup final on the road in Detroit, losing the first two games to come home in a 2-0 hole. The Caps played well enough to win both of those contests.
The Caps came home for Game 3, only to find what was then known as MCI Center filled with as many Red Wings as Capitals fans. Detroit scored 35 seconds into that Game 3 to take a 1-0 lead, and the building erupted. It was deflating for the Capitals.
“It was kind of sad,” remembered Juneau. “In 1998, we made it to the final. We go to Detroit, we played two great games and deserved to win probably both of them. We came back here behind [in the series] and we got on the ice and saw that it was all Red Wings fans all over the place. And today to see what has happened and what is happening, this city has become a hockey town and it’s pretty special to see.”
Throughout his career, Juneau was known as a playmaker. He reached the 50-assist level four times in his career and would likely have done so a fifth time if not for the lockout that shaved the 1994-95 season to 48 games.
Two years earlier, Juneau was awarded a penalty shot in double overtime of a playoff game against Pittsburgh, a game that Washington lost in four overtimes. The Caps lost that 1996 series to the Pens as well after winning the first two games in Pittsburgh.
“Actually what’s funny is I was questioned about that goal a few years back,” said Juneau. “Somebody from ESPN called me and I had a tough time to describe the goal. What I remember from it was we had the puck in the neutral zone and we had luck making a play. Brian Bellows came in with speed and just drove the net. I got credit for the goal but he made everything happen. I just went to the net, I settled and waited for a rebound.”
Because of his playmaking acumen, some were surprised that it was Juneau who scored that key goal. But he did have a history of getting things done.
Juneau taught himself to speak English while earning his degree at R.P.I. He built a canoe in the garage of his Gambrills home during the 1994-95 lockout. Along with his father, he built a small prop plane in the backyard of his Quebec home during his playing days. Juneau played drums and was a member of a local band called Offwings.
“As a hockey player, I was always the playmaker,” Juneau recollected. “I was always the guy setting up the plays for the guys who scored. This time it was the other way around. It was someone else that actually made it happen; I was just the guy who was finishing. I get the credit for it, but actually it was a Brian Bellows thing. He did most of the work.”