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  Even as Victims of Sweep, They Won Admiration
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, May 10, 1990; Page F01

Capitals Logo When the game, and the season, ended, the Washington Capitals began skating slowly off the ice with their heads down, ashamed it seemed, as they traditionally have been at such times.

On this occasion, they were instinctively chagrined that they had been swept in four games by the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference finals.

Then, the Capital Centre crowd began to cheer. An ovation for a loser. A swept loser at that.

One by one, the Capitals gathered in front of their goal and, perhaps, gathered their thoughts as well. They had not ascended to the Stanley Cup finals. But, for once, they hadn't ended the NHL playoffs in Hades either.

So, they started shaking hands, and rubbing each other's sweaty heads, forgetting this last, exasperating 3-2 defeat. The celebration, if you could call it that, was quiet and short.

But, for the Capitals, it was something entirely different. Perhaps a start.

"The Capitals have always seemed to be a victim of circumstance in the playoffs," said Washington goalie Mike Liut, an NHL veteran but a first-time Capital. "It was gratifying for this team to play beyond expectation, with a lot of grit. Maybe play beyond themselves."

You don't have to win the last game of the year, or even win a game in the last series, to have a good season.

A great one, sure. But good, no.

The Capitals, who haven't had many seasons upon which they can look back with pride, should hie themselves forthwith to their favorite golf course or swimming pool. And wash those Bruins right out of their hair.

After all the agony the Capitals have endured the past seven years, getting swept in four largely noncompetitive games shouldn't even register on their misery index. Compared to being upset in the fourth-overtime to lose a seventh game, what is a 5-3, 3-0, 4-1, 3-2, snookering?

The Capitals weren't especially good Wednesday night in Capital Centre.

For the third straight game.

But who cares?

Maybe they have never won a game in May, but now, at least, they've played a few.

So what if they fell behind on a soft goal past Liut in the first 53 seconds and never even tied the score all night?

The better team won.

Even if you think the Capitals were underachievers in the regular season, they went further in the Stanley Cup playoffs than they probably should have. Ask the New Jersey Devils about Dino Ciccarelli and the New York Rangers about John Druce.

"Next year, we'll not only play in May, but we'll win," said owner Abe Pollin. "There's not a quitter in the room."

The Capitals might have been excused if they'd quit last night. "We wanted to get the crowd in the game," said Liut, shaking his head, thinking of the first-minute goal he'd allowed. "You see the game slipping away before you even get to start it. This wouldn't have been the first time a team cracked when its game plan went out the window in the first two minutes. But we held it together well."

Well enough, at any rate, for the oh-so-faithful fans to get a chance to rock the joint a few times in the final period.

In the long run, all that those fans likely will remember from this spring are the words Wales Conference finals, and those two names that, for a little while, became magic — Ciccarelli and that amazing fourth-line escapee Druce.

The Capitals wanted to win this game for pride — and to solidify their hold on the imagination of a city that is sometimes cool to hockey. "It doesn't feel as good," said Coach Terry Murray when asked if the May sweep undercut the pleasures of April. "You have an empty feeling when you don't win a game."

On the other hand, the Bruins wanted to win for sweet revenge at what they considered the Capitals' tough-guy style. After Game 3, Boston Coach Mike Milbury said, "There were a number of blatant cheap shots. Sometimes it's hard to watch. You want to go out there and club somebody back over the head.

"But it's carried {the Capitals} a long way."

The most memorable and important minute of this game was the first minute. Murray's opening gambit was a bit of a gamble, starting Liut over Don Beaupre in goal. Unfortunately for the Capitals, just when his team needed a lift, Liut handed them an anchor. Just when the sellout crowd wanted to start clapping, Liut handed out 18,130 pairs of gloves. You could hear a puck drop.

Was the first goal soft? Liut managed to score on himself. The first time he touched the puck, on a flimsy centering pass, he made a tentative clearing flip with his stick. The puck hit Boston's John Carter, who was on the doorstep, and ricocheted past Liut. "It hit his knee and came back before I could react," siad Liut.

"That was something we were looking for the whole series and never got -- a lucky break, something to get our foot in the door," said Murray. "It didn't happen, though it did for us in the other series."

While Murray may have to answer for Liut's poor first period, he has two things going for him over the summer that his brother, Bryan, never did.

First, he's found the key to the Patrick Division: Terry unlocked the door and the Capitals finally escaped their division. The Final Four sounds good in any sport. In addition, Terry has a perfectly acceptable battery of excuses — even for a sweep.

Washington was decisively outmanned from the start. Also, the Capitals looked exhausted after their two upsets. Or was it merely the Bruins' team cohesion, the ability of five players to move almost as one, that made the Capitals look tired by comparison?

Finally, the Capitals were decimated by the subtraction of Ciccarelli and huge defenseman Kevin Hatcher. Losing them was a blow to team self-confidence that a sub-.500 club could not even begin to surmount.

In the end, the Capitals could not quite shake their snakebitten feeling. They finally surpassed themselves, then, just as they had a chance to shock their world, key injuries left them with a lopsided defeat they will find hard to measure and digest.

"The Capitals had to fight out of a deep hole," said Milbury generously. "With Ciccarelli and Hatcher, it would have been a different series."

Terry Murray, whose voice sounds as much like his brother's as a mother could ask, sounded like the ghost of Bryan when he said, "We were finally having some luck for a change. We were getting good goaltending. And we got a couple of guys on goal-scoring streaks. When that happens, you get the feeling, 'This could be the year that we do some real good things.' "

Despite their doozy of a Bruins' hangover, the Capitals still did "some real good things" this spring. Not even a sweep should make them forget.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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