These days, Washington Capitals fans are spoiled.
The offensive firepower that the team boasts means not only that fans will be treated to high-scoring affairs on a nightly basis, but that jaw-dropping, highlight-reel plays are considered the norm.
A wise man once said that you can always assess a team's entertainment value by the bathroom rule.
"Can I go to the bathroom in the middle of the period without missing a spectacular goal? Am I comfortable taking that risk?"
With these Caps, it's always best to hold it in. The "Young Guns," as they're called, are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. At any given moment, one of these players is capable of doing something with the puck that you've never seen before. Something that, years after he's gone, will leave a lasting imprint on your memory of him as a player.
For many years before the "Young Guns," however, the Capitals featured only one player capable of making you adhere to the bathroom rule.
His name was Peter Bondra.
As we're only two weeks away from the 2010 NHL Draft, I've been doing my due diligence reading scouting reports and researching potential Caps draft picks. Along the way, I came across an article on ESPN (Insider) ranking the top 10 NHL draft picks of all time according to value.
The formula for analyzing the value of a pick was based on the pick's projected points per game and their actual points per game throughout their career. The difference became their overall value score.
As I scrolled down, I came across Bondra, who was drafted in the eighth round, 156th overall, by the Capitals in 1990. The 156th pick's expected points per game (0.106) and Bondra's actual career mark (0.825) ranked him as the No. 9 value pick of all time:
Bondra was 22 years old when he entered the 1990 NHL draft. For the most part, he was not on the radar of NHL scouts. Part of the reason: He wasn't eligible to play for the Czech national team because he was born in Ukraine and was a Russian citizen. But Bondra was discovered when Washington Capitals scout Jack Button came to Czechoslovakia to watch another player. Sports Illustrated wrote in 1998: "He saw that Bondra had explosive speed, the kind that keeps defensemen on their heels, and a wicked shot with a remarkably fast release. He saw that Bondra was strong on his skates and wasn't afraid to play in traffic."
Jack Button's scouting report was dead on; he had found a diamond in the rough.
The "explosive skater" won the NHL's Fastest Skater Competition during All-Star Weekend in both 1997 and 1999. The "wicked shot with a remarkably fast release" manifested into 503 goals and 389 assists for 892 points during his career. His 472 goals in a Washington Capitals sweater are still good enough for the best mark in franchise history.
But it wasn't just that Bondra scored goals that made him the amazing player we remember today. It was how he played that endeared him to all who watched.
May 25, 1998.
The Capitals were just two days removed from a 2-0 shutout loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. Pundits wondered if anyone could break through against Hasek, the three-time Vezina Trophy and reigning Hart Trophy winner.
Facing a crucial Game 2, Bondra is at his best. The league's leading goal scorer in the regular season finds a way to get under Hasek's skin like nobody before him.
In regulation, he deflects a point shot past Hasek, seemingly knocking the puck out of Hasek's glove and watching it take a funny bounce on its way to the back of the cage.
Then, in overtime, as Hasek roams far from his crease to play a loose puck, Bondra plays the body, knocking the goaltender on his belly. Hasek loses his cool, furiously firing his blocker pad in Bondra's direction. Moments later, Todd Krygier one-times an Andrei Nikolishin pass into the back of the net to end the game.
I was in the building for this, and the only thing that topped that sequence was the drunk Sabres fan who, while exiting MCI Center, thought it a good idea to try to slide down one of the long stair-rails, only to fall flat on his face.
(Begin the below video at 2:33 to see some of Bondra's exploits against Hasek)
Capitals 3, Sabres 2. Series even, 1-1, and heading to Buffalo. "Bonzai" was firmly entrenched in the Czech netminder's head, and it was evident throughout the rest of the series. Bondra scored three goals and added one assist during the next four games as the Capitals closed out the Sabres, 4-2, and clinched their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history.
Bondra was never known as an "agitator" or for an overly physical style of play, a la Alex Ovechkin, but his performance in the playoffs throughout his career was emblematic of his ability to adapt in all situations, adopt the style of his team, and produce when he was needed most.
April 12, 2001.
The Caps had lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round of the previous year's postseason, and were eagerly awaiting a rematch with their bitter rivals.
The scene outside MCI Center before Game 1 is insane, and the noise inside the building reaches a level I had never before experienced. It's not hard getting the juices flowing for Game 1 of the playoffs, but it's impossible not to feel a little extra emotion when it's against the Penguins.
The first period ends with no score. Who the heck is this Johan Hedberg guy, anyway? But there is hope: The Capitals begin the second period on the power play, and they have Bondra, the deadliest power-play weapon in the league to the tune of 22 goals with the extra man on the season.
Sure enough, 35 seconds in, Sergei Gonchar slides the puck across the point to the left-handed Bondra, who fires an absolute laser past Hedberg to give the Caps the 1-0 lead. That's all they need, as they shut out the Penguins in Game 1, 1-0.
(Begin the below video at 1:11 for Bondra's snipe against Hedberg)
For a moment, revel in Bondra's moment and try to forget that the Caps fizzled out in classic Caps fashion, losing the series, 4-2. That shot was one of my, and I'm sure one of many Caps fans', fondest memories of Peter Bondra.
February 15, 2004.
We didn't know it then, but three days and two games later, Bondra would be traded to the Ottawa Senators, fated never to wear a Capitals uniform again.
The Capitals shut the door on the Blackhawks the rest of the way, winning 4-0. Bondra's goal stands as the game-winner, the 73rd such goal of his already decorated career. If destiny wasn't to have him hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head in triumph, then this was a fitting way to end his tenure in Washington.
Be it radio broadcaster Steve Kolbe's classic "Bonzaaaaaaiiii" goal call, the ceremony following his milestone 400th goal, one of his 19 hat tricks, or any of the moments we reminisced about above, every Caps fan has stories to tell about Peter Bondra.
But then again, perhaps there are more memories to come. Maybe we'll see him around these parts soon enough.
Note: Alex Reed loves all Washington Capitals
that aren't named Tomas Fleischmann but is a self-proclaimed Peter Bondra enthusiast.