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 Tony Kornheiser bids farewell to "choking dogs."
 For Caps' captain Dale Hunter, the series was a big letdown.
 Even after losing, Caps fans note that it was their best season ever.
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 Stanley Cup finals recap
 Capitals Section
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  For Caps, Dream Is Over
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page A1


Cup Logo

Chris Simon tapped his stick gently and Olaf Kolzig wearily rubbed his hand through his damp hair as the Washington Capitals formed a quiet, lonely line across the middle of MCI Center last night. They waited, graciously, for the Detroit Red Wings — their conquerors — to break from an exuberant Stanley Cup celebration and join the Capitals for the traditional handshake at center ice.

After waiting 24 long years to make the Stanley Cup finals, the Capitals watched their dream season end abruptly here last night, when the Red Wings finished a four-game sweep of these Stanley Cup finals with a 4-1 victory on Washington's home ice. Once hands were shaken and congratulations offered, the Capitals retreated to their dressing room to a standing ovation, while the Red Wings held an emotional celebration in front of the sellout crowd.

"I've got a bit of an empty feeling right now," said goaltender Kolzig, who forged a new reputation for himself — and this franchise — with his amazing performance this postseason. "In a few weeks, it will pass, and we'll realize what a great season we've had."

This championship was the second straight for the Red Wings, who have been to the finals three times in the past four seasons and are bidding to become hockey's newest dynasty. Their talent, and their performance in this series, proved eye-opening for the novice Capitals, who exceeded all expectations simply by making this stage of the playoffs for the first time.

Just one short season ago, Washington failed to make the playoffs at all, and Dale Hunter, the team captain, was planting soybeans on his farm in Ontario while the Red Wings demolished the Philadelphia Flyers in the first of their back-to-back sweeps. This spring, Hunter — an 18-year NHL veteran — had his first taste of Stanley Cup excitement, and he found that it ended far more quickly, and disappointingly, than he had imagined.

"It's disappointing," Hunter said. "They beat us four games straight. . . . I guess we have nobody to blame but ourselves."

Like Hunter, the Capitals' fans — who were slow to grow in numbers, but fierce in the end — were disappointed by the short series, but most stayed to watch with wonder as the Red Wings celebrated a trophy still unfamiliar to this town. In the most moving moment of the evening, the venerable Stanley Cup took its first turn around the ice in the lap of wheelchair-bound Vladimir Konstantinov, a member of Detroit's 1996-97 championship team who was injured in a tragic accident just six short days after the Red Wings captured that title.

Konstantinov — once one of the toughest, most exuberant players on the team — spent months in the hospital following the accident, a limousine crash, and still has both brain damage and partial paralysis. He was rolled out onto the ice after the final buzzer sounded, and the entire crowd gave him a standing ovation.

"This is for No. 16," said Slava Fetisov, a veteran Detroit player, referring to Konstantinov's sweater number. "He is going to walk soon — I have no doubt about it."

Fetisov then bent down to his friend, who wore a Stanley Cup hat and held a cigar. "Buddy," Fetisov said, "this one is for you."

The Red Wings were the runaway favorites in this series, and many Capitals bristled at the pre-series predictions that Detroit would win the title in a sweep for the second straight year. Built by former general manager David Poile and Jack Button, fine-tuned by current general manager George McPhee, and driven by dynamic first-year coach Ron Wilson, the Capitals finished the regular-season fourth in the Eastern Conference. Then they roared to the conference title with series victories over Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo.

But reality struck fast and hard in this series. Washington finally faced a more talented team, and was forced to watch hopelessly as the Red Wings demonstrated, in a hundred little ways, just why they are a championship club.

Last night, Detroit took an early lead with Doug Brown's goal midway through the third period, built that lead to 3-1 by the end of the second, and dashed all hope when Brown scored again 1 minute 32 seconds into the third. As hope slipped away for the home team, the red-clad Detroit fans in MCI Center started their celebration, unmistakable chants of "Sweep! Sweep!" echoing from the upper levels of the arena long, long before the final seconds ticked off. On the Washington bench, all faces were grave.

"We had the whole third period, practically, to think of it," left wing Brian Bellows said of the team's defeat. Asked what he and his teammates were thinking, Bellows — who has won one Stanley Cup in his lifetime — gently shook his head.

"You go back and you go through things," he said. Then Bellows started to recite the moments that ran through his head during those long third-period minutes — moments that most Capitals will find hard to forget. He talked about the 4-2 lead the Capitals had in Game 2 of this series — a lead they lost, and a game they lost in a devastating overtime. He talked about Sergei Fedorov swooping in for a huge goal here in Game 3 Saturday night, a sight that reminded him of what great talent resided on the opposition's bench.

Then Bellows talked about the small differences in this series, the plays and moves and moments that showed the Red Wings to be a championship club, and the Capitals to be a team that's still learning — learning what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, and learning, for the first time, how hard it is to lose one.

"It's the little things that weigh on your mind," Bellows said. "They're the ones you'll never forget."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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