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First-place Caps are D.C. sports pioneers


Last time a D.C. team led its league.

Two months into their season, the Washington Capitals have the most points in the NHL. This is some sort of groundbreaking occasion, though it's hard for me to know exactly how groundbreaking it is. At a minimum, I believe it's the first time in the 21st century a D.C. pro sports team has led its league standings this far into a season.

(I'm not counting the Mystics, Freedom, D.C. United, etc, because it's a lot easier to lead a league that has fewer than 20 teams.)

I'm flying a bit blind here, so if anyone has any corrections please have at it, but it's been a long time since a big-four D.C. sports team was the sole league leader this far into a season. I'm pretty sure it hasn't happened since the Bandwagon Redskins. Here are the closest calls.

Nationals

The plucky Nats have never had the best record in the Major Leagues two month into a season. I'll let Phil Wood chime in with the last time the Senators accomplished such a feat, but the best the Nats have done was keep a share of first place in the NL East all the way up until July 26, 2005. They still had a half-game lead over the Braves on July 20, 2005, following a loss to the Rockies. But on the last day they were still tied for the lead, people weren't thinking happy thoughts.

"Something is missing here with this ballclub now," Manager Frank Robinson said, after a loss to the Astros. "Something is missing. Whatever it is, I've got to try to find it or figure it out. This is not the same ballclub that played most of the first half of the year. And I don't mean personnel-wise. I mean the way we're going about our job and our results."

Wizards

Not sure about the regular sseason, but the Wizards/Bullets haven't finished a season with the best record in the NBA since 1979, when their 54-28 record and .659 winning percentage was two games better than the Seattle SuperSonics, who won the league title.

Of course, everyone remembers that weird blip in 2007, when the Wizards briefly had the best record in the Eastern Conference, but they never led the entire league. Still, let's find some quotes from those heady days. I guess the headiest of the days was January 31; that's when the Wizards beat the Pistons to improve to 27-17, putting them a game and a half up on Detroit for the top spot in the East. Antawn Jamison got injured that night, but it was no big deal.

"We have the personnel to keep the ship afloat," Jarvis Hayes said. "It's up to us to maintain this momentum we have going."

"We have a little swagger going and everyone is playing well," DeShawn Stevenson said. "We have a team that believes in each other and as long as we play hard, we will win games."

Redskins

They began the 1996 season 7-1, but so did the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers. So I'm not sure that really counts. Still, it led to some happy quotes, like this one, from Jack Kent Cooke: "We know we're going to the playoffs; that's as inevitable as tomorrow, but not quite as imminent." The Skins finished 9-7, and missed the playoffs.

The last time they really had sole possession of the NFL's best record was, I believe, 1991, the Bandwagon year. That team started 11-0; its closest competitor for the early part of the season was the New Orleans Saints, who started 7-0. So from Oct 27, 1991 until they won the Super Bowl, the Redskins had the NFL's best record.

Of course, people were talking about perfection that year, until a late-November loss to the Cowboys.

"It's just a hunch, but I don't think we're gonna go undefeated anymore," Skins linebacker Matt Millen said on that day. "It was nice while it lasted and you hate to lose, but it was just one of those days.

"You have to keep it in perspective," he said. "We're out here 16 weeks. We're out to get to the playoffs and go to the Super Bowl. All those are still out there, they're all still attainable. All the things that got us here are still there. Guys have been here before. We've lost before, and we'll win again."

And they did, obviously.

"I have so much pride in Joe Gibbs and the coaching staff," Jack Kent Cooke said after the Super Bowl. "And we have the best bloody fans on the face of the earth."

Capitals

Which brings us to the Capitals. In 1997, the team started 3-0, which The Post said was the NHL's best record; not sure if there were any other undefeated teams at the time.

But the last--and only--time the Caps had the league's best record this late in a season was also 1991, when they and the Redskins were both atop the league standings at the same time. That team started the year 8-1, which was the best start in franchise history. Through 33 games, they were 23-10. (This year's team is 20-7-6, for an identical 46 points.)

On Dec. 2, 1991, they made Sports Illustrated, under this headline: "Newly explosive offense has elevated Washington to the best record in the NHL."

"The traditionally plodding, low-scoring, defense-minded Caps have been on a goal-scoring orgy since the beginning of the season," Richard O'Brien wrote.

The good times lasted until late December, if I'm reading this correctly. The Caps lost three straight from Dec. 22-28, giving up 18 goals in that span. Montreal passed them for the league's best overall record, and then the Rangers equaled them for the Patrick Division lead with an absurd 8-6 win, in a game Washington once led by five.

"I'm not worried about first place after the way we played tonight," Caps coach Terry Murray said after that loss. "If we keep playing like this, we'll be in second and looking up for a while."

Eighteen years, to be precise.

(In truth, the Caps would later regain the Patrick Division lead, but Dec. 21 was the last time they would be alone in first place atop the NHL standings. For the record, Caps PR ace Nate Ewell points out that two weeks later, on Jan. 3, the Caps moved back into a tie for the most points with Montreal, but they never again re-took sole possession of the lead.)

By Dan Steinberg  |  December 14, 2009; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Caps , Nats , Redskins , Wizards  
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Comments

Back in 1997, the Baltimore Orioles were the team of choice for DC baseball. I'm still an Orioles fan.

They finished with a 98-64 record, which was three wins short of the Braves 101-61 record (although the O's swept the Braves in interleague play; '97 was the first year for that).

I think at some point, the O's did have the best record in the MLB at some point in that season. Not sure how to check to make sure, though.

Posted by: theamazingmouse | December 14, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

In 1991, the Redskins closest competitor was the Buffalo Bills, who started off 8-0 or something. We were the last two undefeated teams and everyone knew the Skins and Bills were going to meet in the Super Bowl. I don't recall the Saints ever being considered a real threat to the Skins that year, but the Bills certainly were.

Posted by: Section104 | December 14, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

@Section104, the online stuff I"m looking at shows the Bills started 5-0 before losing to the Chiefs, and the Saints started 7-0. I meant closest competitor in terms of record, nothing else.

The Saints crumbled down the stretch, and the Bills lost their second game on Nov 24, the same day the Skins lost their first.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 14, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

The last time a Washington baseball franchise had sole possession of the best record in the league was April 27th, 1951.

The Orioles have had the best record in the AL as recent as April 8, 2008 when they were 7-1. They finished with the best record in the AL in 1997.

Coolstandings.com is great for historical baseball standings.

Baseball-Reference can do the same thing although it takes a few more clicks to pull it up.

Posted by: Bauschz | December 14, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

@Bauschz: Awesome... thanks to Coolstandings.com, I was able to determine that the Orioles had the best record in baseball on Sept. 9, 1997. O's were 89-53 (.627 percentage) versus the Braves 90-54 (.625 percentage).

Posted by: theamazingmouse | December 14, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Didn't Eddie Jordan coach an All-star game while with the Wizards? That would put them at least first in the east near midseason.

Posted by: Dancy1 | December 14, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, the Devils have two games in hand over us and only one less point. They've accrued a higher percentage of available points.

Posted by: LouLewis | December 14, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Well, Washington didn't have a baseball team from 1972-2004 so that's one major sport where there were NO results to be had for several decades.

The Caps came in 1974 and didn't have the history or tradition locally to draw upon as Montreal, Boston, Chicago and Detroit do.

Washington has mostly been about football and basketball. Collegiate and pro.

And that reflects the success of the teams.

The Bullets after moving to the Cap Centre made the NBA Finals in 1975, 1978 and 1979 that first decade.

Meanwhile the Redskins went to the Super Bowl 5 times in 1972, 1982, 1983, 1987 and 1991.

Other than the Caps revival from 2007 onward, this decade has been the most bleak since the 1960's.

Not even ONE championship appearance.

Posted by: leopard09 | December 14, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I remember that SI article. The week that article came out the Caps were swept in a home-and-home series by someone really bad at the time. I believe the Isles.

I was also at that game that the Caps blew against the Rangers.

Posted by: FlyersSuck | December 14, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

What's your definition of this point in the season? Because if it's games played the Devils, Blackhawks, and Sabres could all be better than or tied with the Caps through 33 games.

Posted by: twoeightnine_ | December 14, 2009 3:19 PM | Report abuse

Fair enough, 289, though they've been tops for a few days now.

Anyhow, yeah, I'm using date, not games, just to make this work. Sort of.

Posted by: DanSteinberg1 | December 14, 2009 3:37 PM | Report abuse

"I'm not counting the Mystics, Freedom, D.C. United, etc, because it's a lot easier to lead a league that has fewer than 20 teams."

You should at least give credit where credit is due as a footnote.

Posted by: sitruc | December 14, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly enough, that also marked the last use of the word "orgy" in Sports Illustrated that didn't involve the Minnesota Vikings.

Posted by: HowdyDCU | December 15, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

"I'm not counting the Mystics, Freedom, D.C. United, etc, because it's a lot easier to lead a league that has fewer than 20 teams."

**********

Its also easier to lead a league where you play only 16 games compared to 32 or how ever many they play in womens soccer and basketball.

Posted by: vmrg1974 | December 15, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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