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Not enough offense, not enough defense
A look back at the Capitals' 1980-81 season
By Mike Vogel

For the first five years of their existence, the Washington Capitals were nowhere close to being a playoff team. Finally, in Year Six (1979-80), the Caps contended for a postseason berth before falling short by a single point at seasons’ end.

At the conclusion of that season, the Capitals looked pretty good on paper. They had four solid young players who were drafted and developed in DC: defenseman Robert Picard and forwards Ryan Walter, Mike Gartner and Bengt Gustafsson. Veteran forwards Guy Charron and Dennis Maruk both suffered through injury-plagued seasons in 1979-80, but both were proven NHL goals scorers. Charron was 31 as the 1980-81 campaign dawned; Maruk was about to turn 25. The forward corps also boasted Rolf Edberg and Bob Sirois – both of whom had 20-goal NHL seasons on their resumes.

Dennis Maruk

Picard led the defense but the blueline brigade also featured former first overall pick Rick Green, veterans Yvon Labre and Pierre Bouchard plus promising sophomores Alan Hangsleben and Paul MacKinnon. A shoulder injury ended the career of two-way rearguard Leif Svensson after just two seasons in DC. He returned to his native Sweden to complete medical school after the 1979-80 season.

Wayne Stephenson was the incumbent goaltender. He played in a club record 56 games in 1979-80 and was supported by Rollie Boutin and Gary Inness. If there was an area the Capitals were looking to shore up heading into the 1980-81 season, it was goaltending.

On June 11, 1980, Capitals general manager Max McNab pulled the trigger on a three-player swap that also included a pair of draft picks. McNab sent Picard, left wing prospect Tim Coulis and the team’s second round pick in the 1980 Entry Draft to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for goaltender Mike Palmateer and the Leafs’ third-round pick in the ’80 Entry Draft.

Palmateer was 26 at the time and had just finished his fourth season in Toronto, where he was a huge fan favorite. Known as the “Popcorn Kid” as a nod to his preferred pregame snack, Palmateer was a diminutive and daring netminder. The right-handed catching goaltender loved to wander away from his crease and handle the puck. He set an NHL record for goaltenders (since broken) in his first season in DC with eight assists. Palmateer was also known for his acrobatic style, his exaggerated glove saves, and his long, curly strawberry-blond locks.

After three solid seasons as the Leafs’ top netminder, Palmateer played in only 38 games in 1979-80 because of an ankle injury. He also had a history of knee problems. By the time he got to Washington, Palmateer had already undergone several knee surgeries. He underwent knee replacement surgery after his playing days came to an end.

There was little question that the Caps needed a proven goaltender but the team paid a significant price to acquire Palmateer. Picard was the third player taken overall in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft and had lived up to his billing during his three seasons in DC. He averaged 14 goals and 52 points in those three seasons and was easily the best offensive threat the Caps had ever had on the backline.

Both Palmateer and Picard were relative short-timers with their new clubs. Palmateer played well for the Caps in ’80-81 but underwent two knee surgeries in his second season with Washington. He was sold back to the Leafs just prior to the 1982-83 season when it became apparent that Al Jensen would be able to assume the lion’s share of Washington’s goaltending responsibilities.

Picard was swapped to Montreal midway through his first season with the Maple Leafs. In an ironic twist, he was traded even-up for goaltender Michel “Bunny” Larocque, Ken Dryden’s longtime caddy with the Habs.

Although the loss of Picard left the Caps in need of a defenseman or two, the rest of the offseason additions in the summer of 1980 were made to bolster the forward corps. Veteran winger Jean Pronovost was purchased from Calgary and Bob “Houndog” Kelly (not to be confused with “Battleship” Bob Kelly) was obtained from the Flyers for a draft pick. Just days before the start of the season, the Caps inked free agent right wing Dennis Ververgaert to a contract.

Palmateer was between the pipes for Washington when it opened its regular season schedule at home against Winnipeg on October 10. A disappointing crowd of 12,984 watched as Palmateer stopped 18 of 19 Jets shots and the Caps prevailed, 4-1. Ververgaert and Kelly each had two assists and Pronovost notched one helper. Dennis Maruk scored twice. Palmateer lost his shutout with just 1:12 left in the third period when Winnipeg’s Dave Babych beat him. The opening night victory was Washington’s fourth in its seven NHL seasons.

Mike Palmateer

A 2-1 loss to the Islanders and a 3-3 tie with Montreal followed. The Caps then closed out their four-game homestand with an 8-2 thrashing of the Rangers at the Capital Centre on October 18. Mike Gartner scored four goals, joining Stan Gilbertson, Tom Rowe and Dennis Maruk as the only Capitals to accomplish that feat. Maruk had two goals in the rout of the Rangers and also assisted on two of Gartner’s goals.

The Caps took to the road for the first time in the 1980-81 campaign, toting with them a record of 2-1-1. It marked the first time in franchise history that the team had been above .500 more than one game into a season. The Blackhawks took care of that by thumping the Caps 8-4 at the Chicago Stadium on October 19. The Hawks scored three power play goals against Palmateer. Ryan Walter scored twice for the Caps and Gartner and Maruk added single tallies.

The Caps returned home, bringing the Blackhawks with them. With Wayne Stephenson in goal, the Caps shutout the Hawks, 2-0 in front of 7,156 patrons at the Cap Centre. It was Washington’s first shutout since January 4, 1978, a span of 209 games. Pat Ribble’s power play goal at 10:26 of the middle period supplied the Caps with all the offense they would need. For the sixth straight game, Washington netted a power play goal, one short of the franchise record. Gartner added an empty-netter with one second remaining on the clock.

The Caps dropped back to .500 (3-3-1) with a 3-2 home ice loss at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Washington then followed the Blues to St. Louis for the start of a five-game road trip. The journey was a successful one; the Caps earned four ties and suffered but one loss, a 4-2 setback to the Kings in Los Angeles. A 5-5 tie with the Rockies in Colorado was disappointing because the Caps held a two-goal lead with less than two minutes remaining. Randy Pierce and Lanny McDonald scored to draw the Rockies even.

Washington pulled off a similar feat in Winnipeg on November 2 to close out the trip. Winnipeg’s Norm Dupont completed a hat trick at 15:44 of the third, giving the Jets a seemingly comfortable 4-2 lead. With 1:31 left, Washington’s Rick Green scored to cut the deficit to a single goal. The Caps pulled netminder Stephenson in an effort to get the equalizer and the gambit paid off with only five seconds remaining when Pronovost scored his second of the season to deny Winnipeg’s Lindsay Middlebrook a seemingly certain victory.

The Caps returned home and suffered a 5-3 loss to LA on November 5. After spotting Buffalo a three-goal lead on November 8, the Caps stormed back with three of their own in the third period to earn a 3-3 tie. In Buffalo on the following night, the Sabres grabbed a 3-1 lead but the Caps again gained a 3-3 tie with a pair of third period scores by Pronovost. The tie extended Washington’s winless streak to nine straight (0-3-6).

Washington returned to the win column with a 3-1 victory in Pittsburgh on November 12. Maruk supplied all the offense with a hat trick to support Stephenson’s 30-save performance.

The Caps bolstered their defense by claiming veteran Rick Smith on waivers from the Detroit Red Wings. The 32-year-old defenseman was a member of Stanley Cup winning teams with Boston in 1970 and 1972. Smith suited up for his first game in Hartford on November and netted the game-winner in an 8-4 triumph. But Maruk was the real story; he became the first Capital ever to record hat tricks in consecutive games and tied a club mark by registering a point in his 10th straight game. With the win, the Caps extended their road unbeaten streak to six straight, a new franchise record.

Maruk was held off the scoresheet in Washington’s next game a 6-2 setback to the Nordiques in Quebec.

On November 20, the Caps defeated Calgary at home by a 4-2 score. Rookie defenseman Darren Veitch – the team’s top pick in the previous summer’s Entry Draft – opened the scoring with his first NHL goal. Gartner scored twice, including the game-winner.

After a 2-2 tie with Boston on November 22, the Caps flew to Motown for a November 26 date with the Detroit Red Wings. A wild game ensued. It started innocently enough; each club scored once in the first although Detroit outshot Washington 12-3. The Wings opened it up with three late second period goals. The three tallies came within 2:43 and enabled the Wings to take a commanding 4-1 lead to the dressing room for the second intermission.