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 The Caps had lost with grace, but that changed with Dale Hunter's cheap shot.
 A little bit of luck allowed the Islanders to come away with three straight OT wins.
 Caps give up a 3-1 lead to lose their second double-OT game.
 A second-period pass by Hunter changed the tenor of the game.
 Read more columns by Tony Kornheiser and other Post sports writers in our Columnists' Corner.
 Capitals Section
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  What Counts Is Accountability
By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, April 17, 1988; Page D01


Tony Kornheiser
Listen carefully and you may hear the faint echo of footsteps receding further and further into the distance. That would be the monkey the Washington Capitals finally shook off their backs. He's scampering to find a new victim. The Capitals' travel plans have changed, too. Usually at this time of year the team is heading home to Canada. But thanks to the most stirring comeback in their short, star-crossed history, later this week you can find them in New Jersey. They're still standing.

No matter what happens from here on, no matter how badly or how often they lose, nobody can call the Capitals chokers anymore. They fought off three match points, and became only the fifth NHL team to win a seven-game playoff series after losing three of the first four games. They did something they'd never done before: They proved themselves.

And what tender poetry in the way they won. Not only to come back from 3-1 in games, but to come back from a 3-0 deathtrap in the seventh game. To go to overtime in this building, the very building where they went so many agonizing overtimes one year ago in similar circumstances. And to win, to finally do to others what for so long had been done to them. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they do, indeed, grind.

Early in the second period, after meekly going down, 3-0, their prospects seemed nearly hopeless. Once again in a crucial game the Capitals appeared not to know how to win. Just because you escape from a couple of backs-to-the-wall games doesn't make you Houdini. But when Garry Galley got it to 3-1, the entire team appeared reborn. They swarmed around Ron Hextall like he was the bait for a shark feed frenzy. Soon it was 3-2, and then, under relentless pressure — 19 shots in the period — Hextall yielded again. Fans, dressed in home white and carrying white pompons, leaped up and down making Capital Centre look like a cotton field in full bloom.

When Dale Hunter pushed the score to 4-3, early in the third period — the lucky seventh power play for the Capitals after having fanned on their first six — there seemed no way Washington could be denied for anything less than cruel, torturous reasons. But the Flyers quickly tied the score, and from then on they might as well have been in overtime. When overtime officially came the Capitals were the aggressors. How many shots did they fling at Hextall? Does 100 sound like too many? How close were they? So close that if they were any closer, you could shave with them. And when Hunter finally pinched through and pierced him, there was the noise of 20,000 sleepless nights, 20,000 muffled screams, 20,000 broken hearts all freed from the grasp of history and exploding into joy.

"Obviously, tonight was meant to be," Rod Langway gushed. "It had to be that we won this game."

The monkey is gone.

One monkey won't stop no show no more.

Perhaps in recent seasons the Capitals were burdened by unfair expectations. Perhaps they weren't ready to be a championship team. But even before this season began the loudest cheers were coming from inside the organization. When Bengt Gustafsson agreed to return to Washington after a year of repatriation in Sweden, the Capitals were euphoric. Abe Pollin toasted the official announcement by asking Gustafsson — via trans-Atlantic videophone — what kind of beer he wanted the Stanley Cup filled with. Acquiring Dale Hunter as a countervailing force for regular season and playoff games against the bullyboy Flyers and the Islanders was a specific act of fine-tuning that has clearly paid handsome dividends.

So enthusiastic were the Capitals about their prospects, that at their preseason media luncheon David Poile and Bryan Murray publicly acclaimed this as their deepest and best Capitals team ever, and plainly committed themselves to winning the division. And indeed, with nine games left to go in the regular season the Capitals were well in front. But they inexplicably suffered an anxiety attack, winning but one of their remaining games. That collapse triggered memories of past collapses, and when the Capitals lost Games 1, 3 and 4 of the playoffs — particularly Game 4, which Murray called "the bottom of the barrel," coughing up a three-goal lead with nine minutes to play — they seemed destined for the same old story, same old act: one step up, and two steps back.

Their comeback has been inspiring to fan and player alike. For all the confidence the players claimed to have, what pleasant history was it based on? For all their towel-waving, how many fans truly believed the Capitals would win this series, considering every time they'd lost a playoff game they'd lost the series? Every time they'd come to the brink of elimination they'd gone over the side. You crawl before you walk. Who's to say that in their way winning Games 5 and 6 weren't more important in the long run than winning Game 7? In Game 7, the pressure was equal for both teams. It's interesting that Murray, an old basketball coach, exhorted the Capitals to think of themselves as being in the NCAAs. True, they're professionals and the NCAAs are for amateurs. But are we sure the Capitals are paying more than the University of Kentucky?

So what are we to make of a Capitals team that responded best when publicly threatened with punishment? You'll remember when they faltered in December, Poile decreed that a "reevaluation" was at hand. The Capitals responded with a 2-0-2 record, and the threat of banishment was rescinded. After the humiliation of Game 4, Poile again went public, promising that Game 5 would be "crucial" to the careers of many of the Capitals. And obviously there was a Game 6 and 7. Everyone familiar with "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" knows such a strategy can backfire. But for this season it seemed to have worked.

Now it's on to the next round, a round the Capitals figured to be watching on TV. Though similarities are evident, it's too soon to compare this series with the Devils to the 1986 series with the Rangers. Let the Capitals rest blissfully for one night before confronting them with the specter of history. They have earned the sleep of kings.

© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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