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 For the first time since 1991, the Caps advanced past the first round.
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  Goaltenders Stop Playoff Frustration
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, April 29, 1994; Page F01

Michael Wilbon
Perhaps the toughest thing in sports is to successfully fight off the notion that you're a loser. And though it will take considerably more than beating the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals took a major step toward becoming something other than losers by winning this first-round playoff series against the 1991 and '92 champions.

And that's what made Wednesday's 6-3 triumph such a special night in the Capitals' history. If Jim Schoenfeld and Joe Juneau don't want to deal with what was, fine. If failing to acknowledge a history they weren't part of will help create a new mind-set and propel the Capitals further into the playoffs, then by all means the coach and the new star player should continue to tell anyone who will listen that what happened here the previous 12 seasons is foreign to them.

But the fact is, for everyone else this is the same club playing in the same arena for the same club executives. They've been this far before. This 4-2 series victory over the Penguins is cause for serious encouragement, but not euphoria. The Capitals, remember, still haven't won a game in May and they're about to face the Rangers, one of two teams that swept through the first round.

You see, the community can't just say, "Hey, that was then, we weren't part of that," because everybody here has been a part of it. Everybody here does remember the marathon loss to the Islanders and being wiped out by the Penguins after leading 3-1, which may be part of the reason why there were 3,000 or so unsold seats for a potential deciding game. The hockey community here can't easily shake the notion of the other team's goalie always coming up large, the Capitals' forwards coming up small, and nice-guy coaches content to see maximum effort when it's results that allow you to skate around on the season's final night with the Cup hoisted above your heads.

Even so, the Capitals have done something very difficult. The Capitals have won first-round series before, only to run out of gas. But, by beating a team many favored to win a third championship, Washington showed this really could be more than a false start. The Capitals beat a team with 10 millionaires to their two, at least by Kevin Stevens's count. They won with a team whose top three goal scorers put together couldn't equal Mario Lemieux's 85 goals in 1989.

Probably the greatest thing in sports still is the upset. And that goes double in pro sports because we're not talking about a one-night fluke, one last-second shot or the solitary night when the other team is Cinderella. When you do it four times in six games, you haven't just pulled off an upset, you've actually become the better team. In little more than a week's time, the Capitals turned one of the Cup favorites into a team that looked too old, too slow and too rich. The Capitals, in all probability, broke up the Penguins as we know them.

If we're picking three stars for the entire series, I'm going with the coach, Jim Schoenfeld, goalie Don Beaupre and center Dave Poulin, in that order. Schoenfeld said on the eve of the playoff opener that Beaupre wasn't going to be between the pipes every night, that two goaltenders and maybe even all three would play during the playoffs, that the team would need at least two playing well to stay alive deep into the spring. I would be surprised if Schoenfeld doesn't play Dafoe or Rick Tabaracci in one of the first two games at Madison Square Garden.

And ultimately, the way these playoffs have been going, goaltending is going to decide the series.

While everybody here was worried about whether the Capitals would be playing golf after one round, the NHL returned to the Dead Puck era. Apparently, somebody drained all the juice out of the puck and put it in baseballs. In 43 games played, 10 were shutouts. And in 11 more, the losing team scored a single goal. Vancouver's Pavel Bure, who led all goal scorers in the regular season with 60, had a grand total of one goal and three assists going into Thursday's action.

Lemieux, who scored 37 points in 22 regular season games, took the collar in Games 3 and 4 against the Caps, marking the first time in 68 career playoff games he'd gone pointless in consecutive games. St. Louis, which had the league's second- and fifth-leading goal scorers, Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan, were swept right out of here.

Montreal's Patrick Roy, who ought to be in a hospital because of his appendicitis, turned away 60 shots the other night. Chicago's Ed Belfour has turned in five straight spectacular games and his team lost the series, 4-2, because Toronto's Felix Potvin turned in three shutouts. Detroit has probably the best offense in the league, but the Wings are tied 3-3 because of Arturs Irbe, the Cal Ripken of hockey, who has been solid for San Jose.

Beaupre, of course, has been great, 4-0 with a ridiculously low 1.75 goals-against average. But you know where that ranks him? Fourth. Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, who gave up nothing in the equivalent of two games in Wednesday's four OT affair against the Devils, has a 1.55 GAA. His series counterpart, rookie Martin Brodeur, had the nerve to allow that fourth-OT goal and watch his goals-against still sink to 1.68. If Hasek and Brodeur told me they could catch a bullet in their teeth, I'd believe them. And lest we forget, Mike Richter of the Rangers has a 0.75 GAA in four games.

It's goaltending that has made the playoffs spectacular to watch, refuting the notion you need more scoring to make the game attractive on television. Action has been plentiful, goals scarce, the total product captivating.

Schoenfeld told us going into the playoffs that goaltending by committee could work in the absence of a Roy or Hasek or Brodeur. He's been absolutely on target so far. And, if there are to be any real celebrations for the Washington Capitals — as they distance themselves further from the labels of losers, chokers, golfers — Beaupre and his backups are going to have to carry this team where it's never gone before, into the victorious sunlight of May.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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