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  Capitals Learn a Cupful of Lessons
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page B10

Jennifer Frey

Brian Bellows wishes that he could explain to his Capitals teammates what it's like — what it's really like — to win a Stanley Cup. The Capitals watched the Detroit Red Wings win the Cup Tuesday night at MCI Center. They watched them celebrate at the far end of the ice, they watched them hug and scream and cheer, and, even in their dressing room, the Capitals still could hear the Red Wings as they took their celebratory trips around the ice.

Bellows can describe that feeling. He can describe what it's like to hoist the trophy, to take it home to his house, to be able to look in the mirror and say, "I won the Stanley Cup." What he can't explain is what it's like to actually win it — what it's like to be in the middle of the finals and know, just know, that your team is on its way to destiny or, as he likes to call it, "fate."

All Bellows can do is rewind the tapes of the the Red Wings' four-game sweep of the Capitals, point to the footage and say, "There, watch the Red Wings. Watch what they do, watch how they interact, watch the sacrifices that they make and the looks in their eyes." He knows no better way to explain it. The Red Wings had "it" these past four games, whatever that indescribable "it" might be. And the Capitals did not.

"I saw experience in their lineup," Bellows said. "I saw grit and determination. They know what it's like to lose it, and what it's like to win it. You can't explain those things, but you can see the difference. . . . There's a determination. Detroit just seemed to have it all going their way. Even when they were down in that second game, things went their way.

"And I tell you," Bellows added, "things go your way for a reason."

There was one phrase that was heard often in the Capitals' dressing room, not only Tuesday night, but after Game 3 last Saturday, and after Game 2 last Thursday in Detroit. "The Red Wings showed why they're champions," Adam Oates said. Olaf Kolzig said it. So did Esa Tikkanen. So did Bellows.

Yes, the Red Wings showed why they are champions. And, in the end, it didn't really end up being about talent. That's what made this series so interesting. Oh, at times it was about talent — like when Sergei Fedorov scored the game-winning goal in Game 3.

But even though the more talented team won this series, it wasn't necessarily their talent, their sheer hockey skill, that brought the Red Wings to a higher level. It wasn't bigger saves or bigger shots that made them win. It was attitude. It was the Red Wings believing that they still could win when they were down by two goals in the third period of Game 2, then going out and proving it. It was the Red Wings believing that they could score more on Kolzig than the Capitals could on Chris Osgood, even though they all knew that Kolzig is a far better goaltender than Osgood, and had played that way all postseason. It was the Red Wings knowing that they could win this series because they'd been there and done it before.

When Wilson talked after Tuesday night's loss, he said his job in Washington was, primarily, "to instill a new attitude." He could not have come up with a better description. And Wilson did a good job, a great job. It was attitude, after all, that was most responsible for turning a team that finished out of the playoffs last season into a Stanley Cup finalist this spring. And it was attitude that was missing at the end.

"I'm disappointed in myself that I couldn't really get our team to really believe in the finals — that we were good enough to beat the Red Wings," Wilson said. "And that's not that we're a better team than the Red Wings, but that we were good enough to beat them."

It was easier for the Capitals to believe against Boston, and Ottawa, and even Buffalo — Dominik Hasek and all. The Capitals took their first major step toward believing in themselves this postseason when they were up 3-1 in the Boston series, lost Game 5 at home, and didn't let themselves get eaten alive by the franchise's well-known 3-1 curse. They took their second major step in the Buffalo series, when they stared Hasek in the eyes and didn't blink. They looked at the world's greatest goaltender — the man who had shut them out in the teams' last two meetings, the man who had ended Wilson's own Olympic experience in agony — and they truly believed they could beat him anyway. But as Wilson admitted Tuesday night, Washington never found that against the Red Wings.

"I never really saw that look we had in the other three series," Wilson said. And he didn't know why.

Wilson tried hard to communicate that faith, and that confidence, to his players. He rolled out the motivational speeches, the imagery, the reflections on successes past. But let's be honest. Wilson is not Scotty Bowman. He doesn't have eight Stanley Cup rings in his jewelry box. Just like the Capitals, Wilson never had been to the Stanley Cup finals until this season. And, just like his players, Wilson had a lot to learn as well.

There's nothing wrong with that. Hey, the Red Wings lost the Stanley Cup finals in a sweep just four seasons ago, and they had more talent than the champion New Jersey Devils that spring. They were inexperienced then, novices to this Stanley Cup thing.

This spring, it was the Capitals' turn to learn what it's like to lose. The faces on the Washington bench and in the Washington dressing room told the story of how painful a lesson that can be. But, as the Red Wings themselves have proven, it also can be very valuable.

"They learned from it," Wilson said Tuesday night, already able to look forward to next season, ". . . and that's what we plan to do."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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