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  Capitals' Dreams Take Flight
By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 1990; Page A01

Capitals Logo On their way up to 20,000 feet or so, the Washington Capitals felt as if they were on top of the universe. Flying home from New York at 1 a.m. yesterday after beating the Rangers, 2-1, Friday night in an exquisitely bruising overtime contest, they experienced the exhilaration of accomplishing what no Capitals team ever had in the National Hockey League playoffs — they'd made the final four in quest of the Stanley Cup. Raucous they weren't; rather, they lapsed into peaceful euphoria, their spirits soaring.

"Wheeeeee," came a player's shout from the back of the chartered plane. But otherwise, moments after takeoff, many of the Capitals contentedly looked out the windows at a smaller and smaller New York, much of it dark. The Capitals themselves had turned out thousands of the city's lights.

"Goodbye New York," somebody in the middle of the cabin said. "Hello Boston."

Boston, and the start of the Prince of Wales Conference playoff, will be Thursday. First would come the 35-minute flight from La Guardia to BWI, a ride to home that combined profound joy and wonderment. For seven seasons, the Capitals failed to win two playoff rounds and advance out of their own Patrick Division. Often the failures were so confounding they wouldn't pass for bad fiction, and each spring the players were left in states of high ache and mortal woe.

Finally, they'd done it.

It almost left them speechless.

"I just can't say enough for this organization, all the work and all the discipline," said Terry Murray, the second coach in an improbable season in which the team suffered a rare losing record and fired its long-time coach, Terry's older brother Bryan. Terry Murray knew he'd struck a rich vein that Bryan had always scratched for but never was lucky enough to find. Terry Murray found gold in John Druce.

"Drucie, Drucie," his teammates called as he walked down the aisle. Another referred to him with mock respect: "Mr. Druce." Up from minor league obscurity at midseason, Druce, 24, has made some hockey history with 12 playoff goals, including the overtime winner Friday night — one small shot on goal the entire night and one giant leap for the Capitals. Druce had a series against the Rangers that Wayne Gretzky would trade his hottest sticks for.

Terry Murray was too happy and too tired long past midnight to try to think of some profound explanation. As Druce's heroic deeds mounted during the playoffs, Murray would say that he'd coached him in the minor leagues with the Baltimore Skipjacks and that Druce always had good scoring potential and that as coach he'd merely given Druce the chance. But in the end, there seemed no simple explanation as to why a team that in the past could lose a critical playoff game in four overtimes or another on a shot from behind the net suddenly enjoyed the fruits of the game's mysteries in a way that couldn't have been imagined. "I don't know what to say about the guy," Murray said.

Terry Murray also enjoyed goaltending that Bryan Murray never did. Almost all Bryan Murray ever had in goal was trouble. This time, a late-season trade brought brother Terry a 34-year-old playoff-hardened Mike Liut from Hartford, the hired gun to protect the Capitals' nets, along with Don Beaupre, who had previous playoff experience with Minnesota. They've made it happen with a wondrous combination of skill and the necessary bits of luck as well.

As the airborne Capitals meditated on some of the remarkable things that had just transpired, they concurred that none was more remarkable than Liut twice — not once, but twice — stopping the Rangers' Paul Broten, breaking away and bearing down on Liut at sprinter's speed for what seemed certain goals. As a Capitals' official put it: "Liut held his ground. He didn't make the first move."

But who had seen a shot like the one Liut stopped in overtime, only to have the puck roll up his arm and across his shoulder and fall crazily to the ice in front of the net?

There was Liut, frantically searching for the rolling puck, not seeing it, seeing it, falling toward it, stretching for it, helplessly watching it roll beyond his reach, inches from the goal line (a puck that looked as big as a pie, sitting there) . . . . And then, Scott Stevens sweeping it away like a man with a broom. That was the luck part.

Geoff Courtnall, a heady offensive player with points in seven consecutive games, sat on the armrest of his seat toward the back of the plane, chatting with teammates. Most of them wore white caps that said, "Patrick Division Champs 1990."

As much as anyone, Courtnall seemed in control of his emotions, happy but knowing the team was only halfway to a Stanley Cup. "It's so exciting," he said, "but at the same time we're not done." He'd be going back to Boston to play against his old team.

But flying home to two days' rest, he allowed himself a moment to marvel at Druce. Even playing on the line with Druce, Courtnall is as mystified as the average fan. He's just in a position to help Druce; he had put the puck up in the air in front of the Rangers' goal in overtime because he saw Druce closing fast. The rest was written as if by a scriptwriter who'd finally decided to give the Capitals their overdue chapters.

"I thought you were going to get the goal," a man on the flight said jokingly to Rod Langway, the Capitals' captain who'd scored the overtime goal the previous game to beat the Rangers.

"Are you crazy?" laughed Langway.

Langway hardly ever scores; that was his only one this season. Twice the winner of the Norris Trophy awarded the league's best defenseman, he contributes in other ways. Tall and muscular and wily -- he'll turn 33 Thursday in Boston — he can stop another team's scoring threat sometimes single-handedly and start a Capitals' surge in the other direction with a deft pass. He can put a pass through traffic and onto a teammate's stick like some people can thread a needle. And tough? Nobody messes with Langway.

"There's enough guys here who know what's going on," said injured right wing Dino Ciccarelli, meaning Langway and others. His knee injured in the second game of the Rangers series, little Ciccarelli hobbled down the plane's aisle behind big Kevin Hatcher, on crutches, the latest knee victim. Ironically, they'd been taken down by the same Ranger, Kris King. "Two gimps together," laughed Ciccarelli.

But Ciccarelli is "a guy who knows what's going on." A late-season acquisition a year ago, he is the pest who plays in front of the other team's net, where larger opponents swat him like an ant on a picnic table. With their sticks they chop at the back of his legs until they're black and knotted. But he keeps taking it, sooner or later scoring.

A friend of Druce's said that during the season Druce asked Ciccarelli for advice. Ciccarelli gave it: "Take the punishment and stay in front of the net." Druce obeyed.

As the plane neared BWI, a flight attendant got on the intercom. She attributed the Capitals' success to teamwork and urged them to continue it. "Then you'll bring the Stanley Cup to Washington." With that, the plane bounced down.

"Druce . . John . . . There he is, John Druce . . . Hey, John. John."

Fans shouted as the players came off the plane and into the airport. A hundred or more serious Capitals fans had stayed up and come out, many wearing their Capitals sweaters. Some held a banner: "It's destiny. The Caps in May. All the way."

The players couldn't be expected to know their destiny when it was so hard to fathom their immediate past. All they could do was pause a few minutes and thank the fans.

One thing about that flight, the mood seemed to match the altitude, not so high that the Capitals didn't have their feet quickly and firmly on the ground once again. They were ready to skate some more.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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