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  A Team's Worth of Disgrace
By Christine Brennan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 1993; Page B01

Capitals Logo UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Say what you want about the Washington Capitals, but throughout their tortured existence, they always have been a class act. They won with dignity. They lost with grace. And in the playoffs, they lost with both grace and regularity.

Then came Wednesday night. In perhaps the most inglorious evening in the 19-year history of this franchise, the Capitals unraveled in all the worst ways. Forget that they lost. That's not the issue. These three things are:

Certainly sensing their playoff doom, some of the Capitals appeared to check out of their final game against the New York Islanders with almost two-thirds of the game left to play, skating as if it didn't matter anymore. They were right. It didn't. With 8 ½ minutes remaining, Dale Hunter, who should have been remembered as the star of this series for Washington, delivered one of the cheapest shots you'll ever see. Angry because New York's Pierre Turgeon scored to put the Islanders ahead 5-1, Hunter plowed him into the boards, leaving him with a separated shoulder. Turgeon left the arena in a sling and will be out up to six weeks, the Islanders said.

Apparently, Hunter decided that if he was going to miss the rest of the playoffs, Turgeon should too. An eye for an eye, NHL-style. And just like that, New York's top goal scorer (58 this season) is gone — as is whatever chance the Islanders had against Pittsburgh when the Patrick Division finals begin Sunday.

After the game, the Capitals closed their locker room to the media, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence for this organization. Coach Terry Murray was nowhere to be seen. A few players wandered out and spoke softly in the crowded hallway, then disappeared. For a club that prides itself on public relations, it was a dismal moment. The measure of a team is how well it handles the toughest losses, and this one really frazzled the coach and the players.

It was ugly and messy and disgusting, all of it. And it was so unlike the Capitals.

Losing was not. For the seventh time in nine seasons, they lost a playoff series to a team that had a worse regular season record than they did. Watching the game, you just knew it was over when the only shot on goal in a Washington power play early in the second period was the Islanders' — and that shot went in for a 2-1 lead. That killed the Capitals, knocked the wind right out of them. They managed just three shots on goal the final 17 minutes of the second period.

"If we died because of that goal," said goaltender Don Beaupre, who admitted he let up for a second as the shot suddenly came toward him, "we weren't going to win anyway."

Did the Capitals give up? Did they finally begin to believe they were destined to lose? Athletes are trained to block out what the rest of us consider obvious; in this case, another Washington loss. Being down 2-1 with 37 minutes to play is not being out. Look at the Islanders, never folding, not in Games 3 and 4, when they were down by two late in the game, nor even in Game 5, trailing by four and cutting Washington's lead to one.

But, this time, the Capitals didn't put it out of their minds. With a heavy sigh, they finally looked at the scoreboard, and all the bad breaks, and the overwhelming odds against them — and simply caved in. Not all of them, but enough of them. They all would say they tried, and they did come back near the end and scored two goals. But they looked lifeless. And restless. Like they had a plane to catch back to Washington, to put this whole, unremarkable season behind them, like it was a bad dream.

Part of the problem for Washington was New York. For the first time in this six-game series, the Islanders played like they were capable of skating for 60 minutes. Those comebacks in Games 3 and 4 were no coincidence; the 10-minute bursts that twice killed the Capitals turned into a game-long assault Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum, and Washington once again could not handle it.

That second period deflated the Capitals. They were tied 1-1 going into it and came out of it down 3-1, on two of the more demoralizing goals you'll ever see — one at the beginning of the period, the other at the very end.

The first was Benoit Hogue's lucky shot that caught Beaupre snoozing. The guy skates down with Calle Johansson draped all over him, the puck comes loose, Beaupre takes a deep breath, figuring he can rest for a second — and then the puck bounces off Hogue's skate, it slides to his stick, and he pushes it past the shocked goaltender for the backbreaking goal.

A stronger team might have bounced back. But the Capitals were a beaten team. There was nothing left. And to illustrate that, they gave up a goal by Brad Dalgarno just 14 seconds before they could escape to the locker room. Their one-goal deficit suddenly doubled.

And then came Hunter. There is no more fiery, feisty player in a Capitals uniform. He's great fun to watch. He plays with his heart on his sleeve. But his brutal assault on Turgeon was so alarming — even for the NHL — that no matter how much you like the guy, you had to be dismayed. This was not a typical hockey fight, one guy pushing another, the usual silliness that works the crowd into some kind of giddy fervor. No, this was the ultimate cheap shot, and it should be punished severely. For instance, how about keeping Hunter out of next season as long as Turgeon is out now?

There's a new man in charge of the NHL. It's supposed to be a new age for the league. Here's a chance for new commissioner Gary Bettman to do what he should do, and give Hunter the punishment his action deserves. It's the least the Capitals can expect from a night in which they acted nothing like themselves.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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