Capitals Sweep Away Their Ignominious Past
By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page C1
One last time for auld lang syne:
Now let's bury the phrase forever.
Lock it in a box, seal the box in a vault, drop the vault in the river, let it sleep with the fishes.
You can fault the Washington Capitals for not bringing their A-game to the Stanley Cup finals if you want. You can fault them for being swept, for hardly putting any pressure on the elegant Detroit Red Wings, for falling behind quickly in every game. But I can't find it in my heart to blast them. After so many years of untimely playoff exits, there was a hockey game in town last night. And the date was June 16. The fact that the Caps were still playing a hockey game is more important than that they weren't winning it.
Yesterday afternoon, while assessing his team's chances to climb back into the series, Ron Wilson made this commitment: "If we're going to go down four straight, we're going to go down swinging. It'll be a Rocky Graziano thing out there." Wilson thought the Capitals might catch Detroit looking past them and toward a champagne buffet. "We might have an edge in that they're emotionally keyed up," Wilson said of the Red Wings. "They've flown their wives in, flown their coaches' wives in, flown their scouts' wives in." (Whew. I hope somebody warned the girlfriends to leave.)
The Caps came out swinging as promised. Unlike their cryogenic start in Game 3, when they had only one shot in the entire first period, the Caps put two on Chris Osgood inside the first minute. But their fury abated, and the Red Wings ended up outshooting the Caps, 14-6, and outscoring them, 1-0.
Detroit's lead grew to 2-0 early in the second period, on a shot from just inside the blueline by Martin Lapointe, a shot Olie Kolzig has stopped about 100 times in a row. But you can stand on your head for just so long on a hard surface-and if your teammates don't give you a cushion, eventually your head cracks.
Brian Bellows narrowed it to 2-1. But shortly thereafter the Red Wings got the margin back to two goals again-to add insult to injury on a shot by Washington's favorite whipping boy Larry Murphy. And for all intents and purposes the Caps' slim chance at recreating the unprecedented Toronto comeback of 1942 was over. Here's why: Eighty-nine of the last 90 times a team took a two-goal lead into the third period of a Stanley Cup final round game, that team won. (The exception, heaven help us: Our Caps last week in Game 2!) The Caps never scored again. For those of you keeping score at home the final was, 4-1
So the Caps were swept. And the number "4"-signifying the number of games the caps needed to win the Stanley Cup-stays frozen on the clipboard in the Caps locker room (and, um, on giant promotional signs around town). As we look back on the series-and we don't have to look back very far; the series was over in about 15 minutes-Game 2 clearly was the turning point. The Caps had a two-goal lead twice in the third period. That game was in the bag the way Dr. Seuss's cat was in the hat. The agony of dropping Game 2, symbolized by the agony of Esa Tikkanen missing an open-net goal that surely would have cinched it, stayed with the Caps long after the game was over.
"That's a game you lose sleep over," Mark Tinordi said.
"If we'd won that game we'd have known that we beat the Detroit Red Wings," Olie Kolzig said. "We were saying, 'We're right there with them.' But we don't know."
And they still don't.
The difference in the series seems slight. Before the air seeped out of the Caps last night Detroit won each of the first three games by just a goal. But the Red Wings were discernibly better. They had obvious superior speed. The way they sped around in the ice in their all-red road uniforms the Red Wings looked like fire engines rushing to a four-alarmer. On defense Detroit had an uncanny sense of where the puck was going. There always seemed to be four red shirts around the puck. "They read the play so well," George McPhee said in admiration. The Red Wings' defense was so dependable that their goalie only had to be Osgood, he never had to be Os-great.
As all of us puck-heads know, Detroit's defensive system is the "Left Wing Lock." In the Left Wing Lock the left wing assumes a defensive posture, which makes it seem like the Red Wings are playing more defensemen than legally allowed. There is a very technical hockey term that is used to describe what the Left Wing Lock did to the Caps: It "killed" them.
The Capitals said Detroit was clearly the best team they had faced all season. "They're real good," Craig Berube said. "Their individual players are as good as any in the league. But what's really great about them is that the individuals put the system first and the team first. Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov are used to scoring 50 goals a year. But in this system they sacrifice their own goals to win cups instead. That's what's important."
In the end, what the Caps envied most about the Red Wings-especially after watching the Red Wings beat them in the close games-was Detroit's confidence. "They know how to win," Tinordi said. "They have the experience of winning and knowing what it takes to win."
The Caps had a great run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, winning three series. But the teams they beat-Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo-were inexperienced playoff teams themselves. Nothing the Capitals had done could have prepared them for being in the Stanley Cup finals against a seasoned champion. "Detroit was there against New Jersey in the finals three years ago, and they knew what it felt like to lose," Kolzig said. "They lost to Colorado in the semis the next year, so again they knew what it felt like to lose. Last year they played for the Cup again, and now they know what it felt like to win." Kolzig paused, then said optimistically, "We've got to find a way to believe we're invincible too."
This will not be much of a consolation to the Caps, but the only people in town who feel terrible that they lost to Detroit are the Caps. The rest of us are elated by the fact that the Capitals played in the Stanley Cup final. Hey, most of us are elated that they didn't gag out in the first round to Boston after going ahead by their witching number, 3-1 in games.
Losing to Detroit stings. But it can't erase the thrills the Capitals gave us the last two months. Nobody had ever uttered the word "hockey" in this city in May, let alone June. Do you realize that as a result of the Caps success in the playoffs that nobody has uttered the words "Frerotte" and "Westbrook" yet? It's possible that if Ron Wilson and Norv Turner walked up 16th Street together, somebody other than Yvon Labre might say, "Hey, who's that guy with Ron Wilson?"
So if being swept means that the Capials are ready for their tee times now, fine. If being swept means that the Red Wings get to carry the Cup hither and yon, and the Caps don't get to lower it into a D.C. pothole or dunk it in the Reflecting Pool, so be it.
The fact is that in going this far the Capitals made hockey matter in this city for the first time. The hundreds of shots Kolzig turned away, the playoff goals that Bellows, Sergei Gonchar, Adam Oates, Todd Krygier, Joe Juneau and Peter Bondra scored-even the shot that Tikkanen missed-they'll all be remembered fondly, long after the pain of losing four straight to Detroit is forgotten.
Ron Wilson had the year wrong. We shouldn't remember 1942.
We should remember 1998.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
Stanley Cup Front | History | Gallery | Fan's Guide | Red Wings