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  Ah, Suspense! Oh, Shoot — Inevitability
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 20, 1987; Page C01

Thomas Boswell
At 2 o'clock Easter morning, give or take a tick-tock and who was counting by then on this night of the skating dead, the New York Islanders looked like a huge human pyre at center ice. After 6½ hours of hockey, all they had strength left to do was fall down, so they fell on each other.

On the Washington bench in Capital Centre, not one player moved. They might as well have been condemned prisoners sitting hangdog in the dock instead of seventh-game playoff losers.

Gradually, the teams formed lines to congratulate each other, each delighted not to see the other all summer. Bob Gould flung his stick to the far end of the ice. Pat LaFontaine, the hero of the longest game in the NHL since 1943, sought out goalie Bob Mason, the fellow over whose shoulder his series-winning shot had sneaked after 68 minutes 47 seconds of season-death overtime to make the final 3-2. They'd been Olympic teammates three years ago.

"I'm sorry," said LaFontaine.

That's how everybody feels now.

Poor Capitals.

Poor, suffering Capitals.

Do you pity them? Laugh at them? Embrace them as the toothless Red Sox? No sense kicking them when they're down, 'cause when were they ever up?

Somewhere a team of paid athletes fails more regularly, is embarrassed more often, criticizes itself more sharply and takes less pleasure in its accomplishments than the Capitals. But we're not talking about box lacrosse behind the Iron Curtain today. Tell a Capital to "have a nice day" and he's even money to say, "Do I really deserve one?"

If 16 teams make the playoffs, they're 17th (1980, 1981). If four in a division make the party, they're fifth (1982). Blow a two-game playoff lead? Sure. Now they've done it twice in three years. Get eliminated by a losing team when the path to a Stanley Cup is wide open? That was last year. Lose playoff games in your own building? Only every April. The NHL never had best-of-seven in the first playoff round — until this year. The Capitals would have won in five, but lost in seven.

On Saturday, the Capitals even had their fans change clothes to change their luck. Fanatics were asked to wear white — symbol of hope. Most did. As it turned out, their white towels might as well have been white flags of surrender.

But not until Kelly Hrudey stopped 73 shots. Not until the Islanders' crease looked like a rugby scrum for the first five or six hours of elapsed time. Not until Capitals General Manager David Poile would be moved to say in defeat, "This was the greatest game in our history. Have you ever seen a game where there were so many great scoring chances and so few goals? I mean ever in one game."

For all intents, the referee left early in the third period. Neither team had a power play for the last 89 minutes 42 seconds — almost a normal game and a half. No-holds-barred hockey. Perhaps 100 penalties went uncalled — dozens of them flagrant tackles and slashes. Everybody caught the spirit. Death before dishonor. A half-dozen brawls ended from exhaustion, not intervention. Acts that would bring a jail term anywhere else on a Saturday night were overlooked as afterthoughts.

"I never worked this hard in my life," said Scott Stevens. "Maybe we should have stopped and had another game {another day}." Mike Gartner called the never-ending shifts "a bad dream you couldn't wake up from." Kelly Miller reached a new experiential plane: "Eventually, I didn't feel anything. Something really must kill the pain. I couldn't feel my body. It was moving without me."

When the Easter Bunny arrived at midnight, the game was halfway through the second of its four overtimes; hardly a seat was empty. As 1 a.m. passed, concessionaires were down to peanuts in the shell and frozen pretzels; the stands were still so chock with chanting, white-towel-waving zealots that Abe Pollin might have scored a public relations coup if he'd just ordered pizza-to-go for 12,000. Not until the last period did play degenerate into slow motion.

The crowd was the master barometer of this game's rating on the thrillometer — a 10. Say one thing for the crowd: they either believed or they had amnesia. When you stay up half the night to root for a team that has never won a big game in its 13-year history, that's faith.

"It's a shame one team has to lose," said Pollin 'round midnight. Coach Bryan Murray turned that sentiment into a perfect post-mortem malaprop: "Everybody tried so damn hard. It's a shame somebody had to win."

Now, New York tabloids can run banners that say: Islanders Resurrected. And the Capitals can retreat to their special hell of unfulfilled dreams.

"Unbelievable. It just doesn't seem right," said Stevens, his face bearing far more bruises than the postfight Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, combined. "No, when we were up three games to one, I never thought it would come to this."

As usual when the Capitals fail, circumstances conspire to put the worst possible face on an already bad situation. Until the last week of a 26-week season, the Capitals chased the Islanders. Because it passed them at the wire, Washington suddenly became a favorite. When Mike Bossy, Brent Sutter and Denis Potvin — all stars — were hurt, few noticed that three regular Capitals also were down — Craig Laughlin, Alan Haworth and John Barrett. The Islanders were perceived as decimated, the Capitals as healthy and hot.

Yet, inside the Capitals' locker room, the Islanders series always looked like a war, not a waltz. "Over seven games, I think we beat them in every category except the final result. That tends to make you look for sympathy and ask, 'Why us?' " said Poile. "But you have to remember that good teams find ways to win."

Except the Capitals, otherwise a good team.

© Copyright 1987 The Washington Post Company

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