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  The Game That Ended Too Soon
By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 26 1996; Page C01


Carey Watches Lemieux Score The Caps had their chances, including this penalty shot by Joe Juneau (right), stopped by Ken Wregget in the second overtime.
(John McDonnell/The Post)
At 2:02 a.m. yesterday, Charles Ridout of the District burst through the doorway of the Stars & Stripes entrance to USAir Arena. More than an hour before, he had turned on his television at home in Anacostia and discovered, to his amazement, that the Washington Capitals were still playing. He watched almost in disbelief as the Capitals' Joe Juneau skated in alone on a penalty shot that could have won the game in the second overtime. Incredibly, it was the only penalty shot ever awarded in overtime in the playoffs in National Hockey League history. But Juneau missed. Penguins' goaltender Ken Wregget made a miraculous save. The game went on. Ridout raced out of the house, jumped into his car and headed for Landover.

"They need me here," he said, after rushing across the arena concourse, skipping down a long flight of concrete steps and taking an empty seat in the first row on the corner behind Wregget's left shoulder. "I can't believe I came. I can't believe they're still playing. My boy Joe Juneau missed that shot. How could he have done that?" A substitute schoolteacher, Ridout said he doesn't have the money to attend games often. But he loves the team. "C'mon Caps. C'mon Caps. C'mon [Peter] Bondra," he shouted. "There's Bondra. Here we go, Caps. They're going to win. I'm here."

But these were the Capitals, beloved by their fans but haunted by bizarre plays and games during their past 14 years of competition in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. On April 18-19, 1987, the New York Islanders beat the Capitals, 3-2, in four overtimes in the decisive Game 7 of a playoff series. That was the Capitals' infamous "longest game" — until now.

Now it was 2:22 a.m. This game was longer. This was now the third-longest game in NHL history, the longest game since 1936. About 6,000 diehards remained from the sellout crowd of 18,130. Youngsters slept in their parents' arms. Back and forth, the two teams skated in what seemed a 2-2 tie that would be frozen for eternity.

And then. . . . and then. . . .

Petr Nedved of the Penguins seized an opportunity with the Capitals' Jim Johnson in the penalty box and slapped a shot past a valiant Olie Kolzig for the game-winner. The Penguins piled on top of one another on the ice, as if they had repeated their Stanley Cup triumphs of 1991 and 1992. The game had lasted 79 minutes 16 seconds of extra time. More than two full games. Only 44 seconds from an eighth period. For the Capitals, the end was more excruciating than a stick blade driven through their hearts. Nine years after their 3-2 loss in four overtimes, they had experienced another one. Michal Pivonka and Kelly Miller played in both marathons. Their heads bent, their shoulders sagged, the Capitals turned and skated silently away. Oh mortal ache. Oh higher woe.

"I don't think I have words to describe it," said a dazed-looking losing coach, Jim Schoenfeld. Only his red hair shone bright. He struggled to speak, relating deep anguish for his players. "Two courageous teams. They were one shot better. It's a big emotional lift for the team that won. I'm sure the Penguin guys could go out and play it again, they're so high." Kolzig stopped 62 shots; Wregget made 53 saves in relief of Tom Barrasso, who made eight before leaving after one period with muscle spasms. Repeatedly defying belief, Kolzig and Wregget performed like magicians.

The Capitals had enviable chances. The crucial game became certifiably rare in the last minute of the second period, when the Penguins' Mario Lemieux — the renowned "Super Mario," the NHL's top scorer this season, the greatest player in hockey, whose personal reputation matches his incomparable skills — lost his composure, instigated a fight to the shock of onlookers and got ejected. The Penguins were inviting the Capitals to take a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series. When Lemieux was banished, the Capitals already were leading, 2-1. Outshot 42-21 in regulation time, the Capitals fired back, 37-12, in Periods 4 through 6.

How could they fail? Why? The Capitals always seem to suffer the improbable, the preposterous in the playoffs. They have been beaten by a shot from behind the goal line; by a puck that dropped from high in the air off Mike Ridley's helmet and toward the Capitals' net so that it could be poked home easily; by a skate that sliced up Rod Langway's leg to finish his season; by Pat LaFontaine, who ended the first four-overtime defeat with a rifle-shot, like Nedved's, past Bob Mason, brilliant in the nets that night and morning like Kolzig. Bryan Trottier had played that memorable game for the Islanders; now he was the Penguins' jubilant assistant coach who jumped across the ice in joy, reliving unlikely victory in the same building.

"For both teams, I don't know where they found the energy to play the way they did," said Penguins Coach Eddie Johnston, a long-ago goaltender who in his old-fashioned brown suit could be typecast as an early century NHL luminary, and who in the wee hours would concur that while he previously thought he had seen everything in hockey, he was now sure that he had. "Big save after big save. Thank God we won."

Like Kolzig, whose view was screened when Nedved shot, Johnston didn't see the winning goal. "I didn't know it went in until somebody grabbed me."

In Washington, the Capitals may not quite be the Redskins, who uniformly seem to matter in a city of political rivalries, special interests, assorted issues and diverse makeup. But among their legions, the Capitals have long evoked deep feelings: of pride in their traditional season-long work ethic that makes them winners and lifts them into the playoffs; of great expectations; of numbing disappointments that usually contradict logic and odds. Encompassing joy, suspense and heartbreak, the game that began Wednesday night and ended Thursday morning weaves flawlessly into the franchise fabric.

Kolzig, hearing cries of "O-lie, O-lie," held off three early Pittsburgh power plays. Pivonka converted the Capitals' first power play for a 1-0 lead. Bondra converted the second for 2-0 lead 7:36 into the second period. Jaromir Jagr, the so-called "Mario Jr.," the league's second-leading scorer, countered at 18:42 of the second period, and Nedved tied the game with 12 minutes left in regulation and Pivonka in the penalty box.

To the first overtime. The Capitals overwhelmed the tiring Penguins, who were forced into penalties to save Wregget. But the Capitals couldn't score despite a 14-3 flurry of shots. In the second overtime, Dale Hunter leveled Jagr, who got up only to be leveled again by Sergei Gonchar. Big Mark Tinordi took a turn blasting Jagr, who looked like a Mike Tyson opponent.

With 4:16 left in the second overtime, Juneau got his remarkable scoring opportunity after defenseman Chris Tamer lifted the goal from its moorings. The delay of game called for a penalty shot; Schoenfeld could choose any player on the ice. Bondra, the Capitals' top scorer, was on the bench. Juneau would take the shot. The puck was placed at center ice. Juneau approached and sped toward Wregget. But he carried the puck in too close to the goaltender, and Wregget cut him off and made the save. "The puck rolled on him about halfway in from the blueline," Schoenfeld said. "That's unfortunate, but that's hockey."

Capitals' hockey history would have it this way. The puck, instead of staying flat and easily controllable for Juneau perhaps to lift above Wregget, gave Juneau trouble. The ice was rough by then, and the puck jumped and skipped. It was a mood-altering moment. The Penguins rejoiced — but they still couldn't beat Kolzig. Players slowed. Fans began to falter. "This is real loyalty," said a man, his back to a wall after the third overtime. One man, who had left after the first overtime and driven a couple of friends home to the District, returned. Others described how they felt: "Dazed." "Sleepy." And this from yet another: "I feel like I'm trapped in an airport terminal." Could this be the game without end?

It ended in what seemed a nanosecond. With time running out in the fourth overtime, the red lamp flashed on, the Penguins' arms shot skyward in triumph. Nedved had scored from the left circle on the power play, his sixth goal in four games; Nedved, a name to be linked in infamy with LaFontaine's among the Capitals and their fans. Players found it hard to explain how tired they felt. "I cannot even say," said Jagr. "There are no words for that." Limping hard from a slash by Lemieux, the Capitals' Todd Krygier made his way slowly into the bitter darkness.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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