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 Detroit's faithful are thinking dynasty.
 For the Caps, it was a case of opening-night jitters.
 Despite defeat, the Caps have faith in Olaf Kolzig.
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  For Their First Time, It's an Experience
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, June 10, 1998; Page C01


Michael Wilbon
DETROIT — A team will never admit to outright stage fright, but wasn't that the case with the Washington Capitals the first 30 minutes of the franchise's very first game in the Stanley Cup finals? Isn't it always the case when you're going some place none of your forefathers has ever gone? Okay, so a few Capitals played in the Cup finals for other teams, guys such as Esa Tikkanen and Brian Bellows.

But it's not like if you're playing a word association game that somebody shouts "Capitals!" and the natural response is, "Lord Stanley." Heck, just last year the natural response would have been "Golf in June."

You spot the Detroit Red Wings a 2-0 lead at Joe Louis Arena and it's virtually certain you're going down, even though Detroit throughout these playoffs has gotten a little blase with leads. The Red Wings carried the play as you'd expect from a team that's been to the finals three times in the last four years and is coached by a man (Scotty Bowman) who has, with three different teams, been to the Cup finals 12 times in 26 years. (How do you ever let a coach go who every other year takes his team to the championship series?) If you're the Red Wings, and you don't jump all over the Capitals in Game 1, you're not seizing one of your biggest advantages: experience. But that's what the Red Wings did and departed with a 2-1 victory.

It looked so completely bizarre to see the Capitals even skate onto the ice for pregame warmups before Game 1 Tuesday night. I mean, it's not like I was expecting them to be suddenly replaced by the New York Rangers or anything. But it's something you had to see to believe. Like Northwestern's football players walking into the Rose Bowl. Or the Cleveland Indians taking the field for Game 1 of the World Series.

Asked about his team's play in the first 30 minutes, Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said his players were "tight" just like Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Buffalo, a game which the Capitals also lost. Wilson suggested that "five or six" of his players had "off nights" and while he didn't elaborate, one of them was not Dale Hunter, who, if he didn't do anything else, earned his pay by flattening favorite son Stevie Yzerman, and kept his head enough to draw Yzerman into a silly penalty.

Still, it was tough to figure this would be the Caps' night. The moment you walk into Joe Louis Arena you know you're in one of hockey's great cathedrals, and in a town where people inhale hockey. If you can't be in Montreal or Toronto, then you want to be in Detroit, indisputably the best hockey town in the United States. You know how coveted a ticket is to the Stanley Cup finals in Detroit? There isn't much scalping. Nobody's selling. A seat inside Joe Louis Arena for the finals is an honor. You could feel the surge in pride when Gordie Howe was shown on the monster video screen, sitting in the good seats, looking trim and strong enough to take a shift right now.

You grow up in the Midwest-like I did in Chicago-you hate the Red Wings because even when they were in the midst of that incomparable Cup drought they always were so steeped in tradition. Howe, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio. What Ice God are the Caps going to put up on the big screen in MCI Center, Michael Weiss?

The whole atmosphere here, even with only one octopus thrown on the ice, can just be so overwhelming if you've never been there before, and the vast majority of the Capitals had been about as close to the Stanley Cap finals as I had before Tuesday night.

One thing working for the Cappies here is that Detroit is such the favorite that the Capitals are, whether they want to be or not, in the nothing-to-lose position for this entire series. The Red Wings are better, the Red Wings expect to win. If the Red Wings, who were seeded second in the Western Conference, don't win this series against a finals rookie that entered the playoffs seeded fourth in the East, they're going to be positively shattered.

But that doesn't mean they'll be fat-headed about it. Three years ago, the Red Wings were up against a team just like these Capitals in the finals: New Jersey. What pedigree did the Devils have, exactly? Who was their star, Scott Stevens, the former Capitals defenseman?

Nonetheless, Detroit got its tentacled fanny swept right out of that series, creating a little paranoia that still exists around here, even though the Wings swept Philly to win the championship last season. So, whatever feelings of anxiety the Red Wings are having have nothing to do with first-time jitters; they're too far along for that. Their two-goal lead, under the circumstances, was almost expected. It wasn't a shock to hear Joe Juneau say between periods to CBC-TV that his team started "panicking. We [had] to believe in each other a little more than what we did in the last 10 minutes" of the first period.

The irony is that once the Capitals were down 2-0, they started to play. Not like they played in victories over Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo. Actually better than that. And it's not as if Olaf Kolzig let in two softies. On the first one, Doug Brown had to slide a perfect pass under Joe Reekie for Joey Kocur to tap in for the score. And on the second goal, Kolzig had three bodies in front of him and never saw Nicklas Lidstrom's blast. "The two goals," Wilson said, "[Kolzig] never had a chance on."

After that, say midway through the second period, the Capitals settled in and played pretty well. And even though the shot count was 31-17 in Detroit's favor, the Capitals produced some pretty impressive scoring opportunities in the third period in an attempt to tie. In fact, their first shots in the third period were great chances. Juneau was stopped twice. Sergei Gonchar's shot that was deflected in front, rolled inches wide of the left post, which would have tied the game. And Bellows worked his way free in front of Chris Osgood for a redirect, but narrowly missed, allowing Osgood to make an easier save with seven minutes to play in the third.

For the last four minutes, the mighty Wings had to be content with flipping the puck down ice to keep the Caps off them. The furthest thing from a team's mind in the championship series of any sport is a "moral victory." But the Capitals at least stuck their toes in the water Tuesday night, and found out it wasn't so cold or so choppy that they couldn't wade in even deeper, beginning Thursday night as a team with Stanley Cup finals experience.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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