It all started for Carpenter in 1981. As a student at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Carpenter landed the cover of Sports Illustrated, which called him “The Can’t-Miss Kid.” Even before making the NHL, he had become the first American-born hockey player on the cover. While still in high school, the Capitals drafted Carpenter third overall at the 1981 NHL Entry Draft. That made him only the second American ever chosen during the first round. Since he began playing for the Capitals right away, he became the first to join the NHL right out of high school. Carpenter had planned to attend college and play for the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics, so he told the press, “A million players come into the league, but I came from somewhere different – the U.S. So it was a new story, something different to write about.”
During his first three seasons playing center for the Capitals, Carpenter scored 92 goals and had not missed a single game. However, the best season of his career would be 1984-85. At the end of December, the press already referred to him as the “Can’t Miss Kid Who Didn’t” and counted how many goals he would need to match Joe Mullen (of the St. Louis Blues) for the single-season highest-scoring American. Carpenter joked, “That’s not much of a record, you know. I think there are bigger ones available.” At the time, he also had just tied Ryan Walter’s record streak for most consecutive games. Upon notching his 40th and 41st goals on February 8, Carpenter tied Mullen’s record from the previous season. Five days later, on February 14, Carpenter scored his 42nd goal of the season, giving him the record for most goals in a season by an American-born player.
All of these accomplishments came to a head on March 21, 1985 at the Forum in Montreal. The game was not going well for the Capitals. The Montreal Canadiens scored in the first 14 seconds. Then, on a power play in the last two minutes of the first period, the puck bounced off Washington defenseman Scott Stevens and was shot into the net by Montreal’s Alfie Turcotte. Whatever was said during the period break, the Capitals (and Carpenter especially) came back swinging in the second. Carpenter took advantage of a power play to send “a wrist shot past Montreal goaltender Steve Penney” at 15:24. With that, Carpenter became the first American-born hockey player to score 50 NHL goals in one season. In leading up to the historic goal, Carpenter had said, “You don’t make the good passes and the great plays when you’re trying to do something like that. It seems that when you try not to think about it, that’s when you end up thinking about it the most.” However, after the game, he told the press, “The team needed the win, but it was a great honor to score that 50th goal. It’s hard to do and scoring it here at the Forum in Canada adds something to it.”
Carpenter went for the win by setting up teammate Mike Gartner’s 45th goal at 18:02 that period, which tied up the game going into the third. Gartner only commented, “We did some good things out there, but then again we made a lot of mistakes in our own zone which we have to correct fairly soon.” One of those things to work on was again poor Stevens. He had already inadvertently assisted on a Montreal goal when he actually made the game-winning goal for his opponents with less than six minutes remaining. According to the Montreal Gazette, Montreal’s Guy Carbonneau had the puck, and as Washington goalie Pat Riggin went down for it, “Stevens’ deflection flopped over his outstretched leg.” As the Baltimore Sun reported on the play, Guy Carbonneau “flicked a backhand pass from the left boards that deflected off defenseman Scott Steven’s stick and over Washington goaltender Pat Riggin’s shoulder at 14:18 of the third period to break a 2-2 tie.” Stevens could only mutter, “That’s the way the puck bounces some nights.” Either way, Montreal won the game 3-2. The Canadiens had needed the win to keep even with the Quebec Nordiques in first place. Meanwhile, the Capitals had lost six of their last eleven games, which put them eight points behind the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division.
The high point of Carpenter’s career ended with 53 goals for the 1984-85 season. Only six others scored more that season, and teammate Mike Gartner also reached 50. Carpenter and Gartner together were called the “Gold Dust Twins.” Carpenter’s 95 points that season topped the rankings for American-born players, though closely followed by Mullen with 92 points. Carpenter held his record until the 1987-88 season, when Michigan-born Jimmy Carson scored 55 goals. For the remainder of Carpenter’s career, he never even reached 30 goals in one season. On January 1, 1987, Carpenter was traded to the New York Rangers only to be traded to the Los Angeles Kings that March. After his trade to the Bruins in January 1989, he remained with Boston until signing back with the Capitals in 1992. The following year, he signed with the New Jersey Devils and had his name added to the Stanley Cup with them in 1995. Carpenter officially retired in 1999 having played 1178 games (320G, 408A, 728P). By career points, Carpenter still ranks 29th out of American-born players.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018), kindle edition.
- Mark Whicker, “Carpenter builds a success story,” Baltimore Sun, 28 Dec. 1984, p. 3D.
- “Carpenter ties record as Capitals top Kings, 6-1,” Baltimore Sun, 9 Feb. 1985, p. 5C.
- “Jets rally to top Caps,” Baltimore Sun, 14 Feb. 1985, p. 8C.
- “Caps put in hat,” Baltimore Evening Sun, 14 Feb. 1985, p. B8.
- Dick Bacon, “Caps’ Stevens helps out Habs,” Montreal Gazette, 22 March 1985, p. B-10.
- “Capitals’ Carpenter becomes first American to score 50 goals in 3-2 loss,” Baltimore Sun, 22 March 1985, p. 9F.
- “Carpenter gets 50th goal, but Caps fall,” Baltimore Evening Sun, 22 March 1985, p. C6.