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 Pittsburgh become the 11th team since 1939 to overcome a 3-1 deficit and win a seven-game series.
 The Caps choked so bad, writes Tony Kornheiser, that they need a Heimlich Maneuver, not a new coach.
 Scotty Bowman's defensive changes in Game 5 proved to be critical.
 Mario Lemieux again stepped up his scoring tempo in the playoffs.
 Read more columns by Michael Wilbon and other Post sports writers in our Columnists' Corner.
 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  No Choking This Time
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, May 3, 1992; Page D08



Michael Wilbon
There have been times, at the end of a season, when you wanted to grab the choking Capitals by the throat and choke them. There was stupid play, uninspired play, lackadaisical play, tentative play, and not particularly creative or imaginative offensive play. There have been times, at the end of a season, when you just wanted the Washington Capitals out of sight and out of mind for as long as possible.

This is not one of them.

Yes, the Capitals lost a three-games-to-one lead in the series. Yes they held leads in Games 5 and 6. Yes, they had the second-best record in the regular season. Still, the primary reason they are done for the season while Pittsburgh continues to defend its Stanley Cup should not be attributed to tight throats.

Sometimes you simply lose to a better team. In this case, Pittsburgh is a clearly better team, more talented where it counts, able to switch styles and philosophies effectively in the midst of a series, resourceful as usually only champions are. Chances are you won't come across a more despondent first-round loser than the Capitals and Coach Terry Murray. Chokers find weak alibis. The Capitals, in their gloom, knew they played about as hard as humanly possible in Game 7 at Capital Centre Friday night and searched for explanations, not excuses.

"We fought hard, we stayed focused," Dino Ciccarelli said. "It's not like we fell apart. That's why figuring this out is so frustrating. I know that past history wasn't an issue here. Everybody played hard."

Nobody seemed more at a loss than Murray, who was visibly angry immediately after the Game 7 defeat, 20 minutes after, 45 minutes after. Murray, by saying he wished the team had played as hard in Games 5 and 6 as it did in 7, suggested it had slacked off after going ahead 3-1. The players, many of them, disagreed. Murray wasn't moving off his mark.

"This is the type of scenario that shouldn't happen," he said of blowing a two-game lead, "not with this personnel. The great season is tainted because of this. You're measured by how you finish, not how you begin."

Murray second-guessed his team's hustle. He second- guessed his defensemen, who as wide-open point men failed to take advantage of Pittsburgh's sagging defense. When asked what he expected his team to do in the face of Mario Lemieux, a man Murray himself called "the best player, by far, in the league," Murray even second-guessed himself.

"Maybe we should have made some {strategic} changes after Game 4," Murray said. "I'll take that responsibility on my shoulders . . . for not changing up defenses, for not having done anything to shadow him. . . . "

After Game 4? The Capitals won that 7-2 at The Igloo. If anything, Murray might have called off the dogs earlier. The only mistake the Capitals made that game was winning so convincingly the Penguins, at home, got humiliated and decided to try to do something about it. But to second-guess yourself for not changing defenses after a 7-2 victory is really stretching it. And although only the players know whether they went as hard as they could, questioning the team's level of intensity after this series seemed to be a stretch too.

Having said that, Murray's frustration is completely understandable. He and his players thought they had a chance to win it all. This year. They'd proved they could beat the Penguins and Rangers. Montreal and Boston of the Adams are both vulnerable. The Capitals had a revamped offense with seven 20-goal scorers, a tough veteran goalie in Don Beaupre. "We felt collectively, from top to bottom," Ciccarelli said, "we had better talent than Pittsburgh."

True enough, but what the Capitals don't have might be what killed them: a star. Lemieux is better than anybody the Caps have. Kevin Stevens is better than anybody the Caps have. Jaromir Jagr is better than anybody the Caps have. "Yeah, if you're talking about a handful, they've got better talent with Mario, Kevin and Jagr," Dino said. Murray couldn't assign somebody to shadow them all.

Yes, it hurt even more that the skate-and-shoot Penguins "turned the tables on us," as Dino said, by going into a defensive shell and looking for offensive breaks only occasionally. "It's ironic, isn't it?" Dino asked, noting how the Caps used that formula for years and couldn't win deep into the playoffs, then abandoned that method for a more offensive approach only to lose to a team of Penguins who played suspiciously like the old Capitals. "There's a tradition here of great defense and waiting for opportunities and they sort of reversed it on us," he said.

So there they sat, wondering what might have been had Mike Ridley's shot not hit the post, giving the Penguins the breakout that led essentially to the two-goal turnaround and 1-0 lead. Some of them should have been wondering what might have been had they beat the Penguins late in the season and forced a first-round matchup with the much more beatable Devils, while the Penguins and Rangers killed each other early.

"I really thought this was the year for this team," Beaupre said. "In all my years, this is the best chance I've had. Up 3-1, you're thinking about winning it. Then all of a sudden you've got to get the golf clubs out. You only get so many chances and we blew a chance. Or maybe, Mario bought them enough time to get themselves going to find a game plan to beat us."

In the end, no matter which theory you accept, it was an embarrassing evening for the franchise. About 4,000 or so Penguins fans, who found tickets available because the Capitals couldn't fill the Centre, stood and chanted wildly. All evening, they sang and demonstrated and were as loud, by themselves, as the 13,000 or so home fans. Can you imagine Steelers fans coming to take the night away from Redskins fans at RFK?

Maybe it was difficult for the fans to discern the difference between choking and getting beat. The Capitals did the latter, but in the final analysis maybe it doesn't matter that much after all.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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