Capitals Are on the Edge
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 1998; Page D1
Coach Ron Wilson, who usually waits to deliver his pep talks to the Washington Capitals until after they skate the morning of a game, took some extra time before practice yesterday to address the team's somewhat dire situation: one loss from elimination from the Stanley Cup finals heading into tonight's Game 4 against the Detroit Red Wings.
Gathering his players in a far corner of the ice away from the fans and television cameras and swirling noise of the outside world he spoke quietly for more than 10 minutes, framing tonight's game at MCI Center as a new chance, not an ending, and reminding them that each game of this series has been decided by only one goal.
"We just talked about the situation we're in," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said later. "It looks like we're like this," he said, holding his hands a shoulder's-width apart, "when in reality, we're only like this." Kolzig pinched the fingers on one hand to within an inch of each other.
"We could be on the winning end of things, and for whatever reason we're not, but he was just trying to emphasize that we need to take it one game at a time," he said. "If we look at our task as winning four straight, then mentally that's just a little too much to handle, so if we look at it game by game, we'll be in a better situation."
After Wilson made his point, the huddle broke, and the Capitals appeared loose and spirited as they went through almost an hour of drills. It certainly didn't seem like Washington's last practice of this surprisingly sweet season, even though a loss tonight would make it so. Only one team in NHL history has come back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win the Stanley Cup, and only five of the 24 teams who have been in that position have even been able to extend their series to five games.
The highlight of the morning involved forward Esa Tikkanen, who missed a wide-open net midway through the third period of Game 2 of this series. The blunder was even more disappointing to the Capitals because Tikkanen had made such a clever deke around Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood to get the open net, and because the goal if he had scored it would likely have given them a victory and tied the series at one game apiece.
Tikkanen has taken some ribbing for the miss over the last few days, but yesterday morning he got some revenge in a drill. Wilson put a glove in front of the net where Osgood had been, and players had to perform Tikkanen's deke and then shoot into the open net. Several missed.
"There's been quite a lot of jokes going around, and it's been fun," Tikkanen said, his trademark mischievous grin cracking extra wide. "It keeps the guys loose, and also a couple of guys missed, so I can laugh."
The light atmosphere was a refreshing change from the previous two days, when the Capitals seemed more shell-shocked and wounded than ready to fight back. Perhaps dazed by the huge momentum swings in their last two losses, some harsh words began to surface, with Wilson and several players suggesting others had not performed up to their capability. Center Joe Juneau noted that "there might be something missing from some guys. . . . It seems everybody's not contributing the way that they should," while right wing Peter Bondra expressed dissatisfaction with his own production.
There certainly was evidence to back up the remarks, considering that Detroit appears to be defeating the Capitals with more than just talent. Throughout the series, the Red Wings have been faster to loose pucks, better along the boards and more consistent in backchecking. With their second consecutive championship so close, it is unlikely they will come into tonight's game with any less competitive an effort. At Detroit's practice yesterday, players said they felt a controlled confidence, perhaps even more than last year, when they entered Game 4 of the finals leading Philadelphia by the same margin. They won that game, 2-1, completing the third consecutive sweep of the Stanley Cup finals.
"Last year, Detroit hadn't won a Cup in so many years that there was a lot of tension, a lot of nerves," winger Joey Kocur said. "This year, the guys know what to expect, so the tension isn't really there."
Some of Detroit's sports talk radio stations have been fielding calls from people who would like to see the Red Wings lose tonight and then return to Detroit to win Game 5, so the championship can be claimed at home. There has also been some sentiment here that if the Capitals are going to lose this series, they might want to lose it tonight, when they can get some appreciation from their own fans, instead of having to trek back to Detroit.
But while that might be some fans' perspectives, neither team shares their views. The Red Wings would like to win as quickly as possible, no matter where they are, while the Capitals are looking to extend this series as long as possible, even if they don't emerge victorious.
"It's tough to lose a Stanley Cup, and we don't want to lose at all," center Andrei Nikolishin said. "But it's especially tough to lose four to nothing. It makes a difference if you can make it four to two or something, at least you won't feel bad all summer, like you can't even do anything against that team. Instead you'd feel like if we change one or two things, we can beat them the next time."
At the Capitals' practice facility, the number '4' signifying the wins Washington would need to claim the Stanley Cup still hangs on the bulletin board. The Red Wings also had a message scrawled across their dressing room chalkboard yesterday, although the directive might have been more appropriate for the home team.
"Faith is to believe what do you not see," it read. "The reward for this faith is to see what you believe."
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