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  Capitals Have the Will, But Red Wings Find a Way
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page D1


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After 24 long years, the Stanley Cup finals finally made it to Washington last night. The hometown fans are still waiting, though, for something to cheer about.

No one can fault the Capitals if they lose this series to the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings are the best team in the National Hockey League, hands down. They are the defending Stanley Cup champions. They are supposed to win this series.

It's another thing altogether, though, for the Capitals to end this incredible season as the victims of a four-game sweep — and not necessarily because the Red Wings have played brilliant hockey. The Capitals have made it this far by working harder and finishing stronger. Now they're on the other side of that fence, watching the Red Wings do to them what they've done to teams for the first seven weeks of the postseason.

After losing a messy Game 3 to Detroit, 2-1, at MCI Center last night, the Capitals are one more mistake away from capping their season with a series they most certainly would like to forget.

"We have gotten breaks in other series when we worked hard," Coach Ron Wilson said, not mincing words after the loss. "And Detroit has been persistent and they're on a mission, without a doubt."

Let's give the Capitals what credit we can first: They came back from a horrific first period, and a one-goal deficit, to tie the game 10 minutes 35 seconds into the third with a power-play goal by Brian Bellows. They gave themselves a chance. And, when it came to the game-winning goal, they didn't get beat by their own sloppiness, they got beat by a brilliant goal scorer named Sergei Fedorov. But, once again, the Capitals were the ones who could not get the job done.

These Red Wings are deceptive. The Capitals felt pretty confident after Game 1, having lost by one goal, on the road, in a game in which they played right with the Red Wings the whole third period. Problem is, the Red Wings played lousy that night, and they knew it, and they were so displeased with their performance in general that even Scotty Bowman announced he'd had a bad night as coach. The Capitals found a false sense of security in that game. It was just too easy to believe the Red Wings were beatable after that.

As the Capitals are fast learning, though, no matter how the game may feel — no matter how close it may seem — the Red Wings always seem to know how to get the job done. It's not exactly a news flash. Call Phoenix. Call St. Louis. Players on those two teams are still insisting that they played right with the Red Wings this postseason, that practically every game could have gone either way. Of course, they're saying that from the golf course, where they have been hanging out for weeks.

Look at what happened in Game 2 of this series, when the Red Wings were down by two goals twice in the third period and scored just when they needed to, then rallied again to beat Olaf Kolzig more than 15 minutes into overtime.

And look at what happened last night. Detroit only had a one-goal lead despite their total domination in the first period, which had to make the Capitals think that they could turn around the game at any moment-all it would take was one brilliant shot from Peter Bondra or one sloppy move by Chris Osgood and they'd get right back in it.

But Osgood didn't get sloppy, not for a long time. When Bondra went in on a two-on-one with Richard Zednik late in the second period, Osgood guessed right on his positioning and was able to make an incredible glove save. Once again, the Red Wings got just what they needed, when they needed it.

And after Bellows scored his goal to bring the entire MCI Center to life-the building was loud-Detroit took about five minutes to regroup before Fedorov swept in and worked his magic.

"All the time, they get the goal they need," said Capitals defenseman Mark Tinordi. "It's hard to explain. We were getting that goal against Buffalo, and Boston, and maybe you sit back then and say 'Why do we score? Why do we get the shot?'"

Now, Tinordi said, he knows what it feels like to be on the outside of that situation, looking in.

"It's not like they outplayed us in the third period," he said, "but they got the goal. They scored. Like I said, it's hard to explain."

The hardest thing to explain about this game, though, was the Capitals' first period. After waiting 24 years to see Stanley Cup hockey in this city, Washingtonians had to wonder what in the world to think after the puck dropped last night. MCI Center was chock full of white-clad fans eager to cheer for absolutely any minor sign of life from the home team, but once they got past the introductions, the Capitals didn't give them much reason to get out of their seats.

There is only one word to describe the Capitals' first period performance: atrocious. The Capitals might as well have hung a sign in the visitors' dressing room that read: "Welcome to our building. Wipe your feet wherever you please."

Want to know what Wilson meant when he suggested that some of his players were not working hard? Well, here's the dreaded first-period statistic the Capitals cannot ignore: One shot on goal. One. And it came 20 seconds after the puck dropped. For the rest of the period, Osgood might as well have taken a nap.

The defense didn't help matters, either. Talk about an ugly goal-Detroit scored 35 seconds into the game and it scored because the Capitals were not doing their jobs. First, Esa Tikkanen got so wrapped up in Steve Yzerman-his checking assignment-that he couldn't let go before the both of them took out Olaf Kolzig, leaving the net wide open as the rebound trickled free. Then, Todd Krygier simply didn't bother to back-check Tomas Holmstrom. If I'm Wilson, I'm ready to spit my gum at that point.

Red Wings fans-and there were plenty of them-were cackling with glee after that goal scored, screaming "Ozzie! Ozzie!" and "Let's Go Red Wings!" for the rest of the period. And though the Capitals eventually managed to quiet them down, it was those same fans who were chanting "Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!" high up in the MCI Center seats after the game came to an end.

As they screamed, a group Capitals fans stood a few rows away looking for all the world like they wanted to tell the Red Wings' horde to shut up. They didn't. What could they say? "We'll get you next time?" The way the Red Wings have been getting the job done-and the way the Capitals haven't-it's getting harder and harder to keep the faith.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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