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  Better Late...
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page C01


Capitals Logo

The dream is always the same. That voice comes from somewhere far off in the distance, the slightly nasal sportscaster voice calling your name as you prowl out of your own end and streak through their end and then finally, with one guy trying to drag you down by the leg and another coming at you from the other side, you score the overtime game-winning goal that earns your team the Stanley Cup. The crowd goes — what else? — wild, and you raise your arms and you ... usually wake up.

Except what if you didn't? What if you played for the Washington Capitals, and all of a sudden you woke up this morning and the chance was still real? What if the odyssey began tonight, at Joe Louis Arena with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings?

"It's amazing, because here we are all here with the chance to make that dream come true," said left wing Todd Krygier, whose boyhood sports fantasy became a reality just last week when he scored in overtime to win Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals for the Capitals against the Buffalo Sabres.

"The ultimate in hockey is to score that overtime game-winner, and the ultimate ultimate is to do it to win your team the Stanley Cup. Yeah, it's a fantasy, but the thing is, we've won the overtime games this year. We know it could happen."

Washington enters this series as a decided underdog, weighed down by a talented Red Wings squad and the franchise's own history of blowing big opportunities. But the Capitals are determined to see this series as the ultimate overtime, the extra period of their most successful postseason.

It's a path they began traveling when they transformed themselves from late-game and late-series liabilities into the last-minute heroes of their childhood dreams. They have won three straight series after leading each three games to one. They have played six overtime games and won the last five. Two of the three series victories have come on overtime game-winners.

"Especially in the first-round series against Boston, we built up leads and then slowly watched ourselves fritter them away, but that's really changed," Coach Ron Wilson said. "We've learned to relax, and that's something that we were able to start in the regular season, but then, at the start of the playoffs, we did what this team has always done. We tightened up again, and not just with the lead in a game but a lead in a series. Then, we started having overtime games and winning them. Now we've had three of those three-games-to-one leads in series, and we've won them too."

The late-game and late-series success of the Capitals this postseason is certainly a big shift from the beginning of the regular season, when the Capitals found themselves getting leads and then losing them in the third period. During a stretch in late October they seemed to top themselves each night, imploding in an even more grandiose way. They allowed Phoenix to jump ahead 3-2 after entering the third period leading 2-1. They lost, 4-3, to Colorado after starting the third period with a 3-1 lead. Often, the other team would score multiple goals in the span of a few minutes.

Such breakdowns popped up again a few more times in the following months, but on Jan. 8, Washington broke out of its slump with style. For the first time in almost two years, the Capitals entered a third period trailing and came back to win the game. That it happened against the New York Rangers in front of a hostile Madison Square Garden crowd made it all the more thrilling.

"It was just a change in philosophy and approach to the game," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said. "We had been looking too much at the past, and we started believing that we couldn't score in the third period or in overtime. Then we realized the only way we were going to beat it was to face it head on. You saw it in the playoffs. Ever since that [Game 3] in the first round, when we won in double overtime, we've gone out in every overtime period playing like gangbusters and it's really panned out for us. We don't get too leery anymore when we fall behind in a hockey game because we know we have the talent and the veterans to get back into it. It's amazing what a little confidence does."

Left wing Joe Juneau, who scored the overtime game-winner in Game 6 against Buffalo that wrapped the Eastern Conference finals, has scored six goals this postseason; four have been game-winners. Right wing Peter Bondra, who had an overtime game-winner in Game 3, led the league this season with 13 game-winning goals. Captain Dale Hunter has yet to score an overtime game-winner this postseason, although his most precious goal came in just such a situation in Game 7 of Washington's 1988 series against Philadelphia.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Hunter said, recalling the moment. "When you can do something like that, the feeling you get is more emotional than anything that's said. The guys on the ice just look at each other, and you just feel it right there. You're making eye contact and it's just right."

Hunter expects it might take such a moment to defeat the Red Wings. He knows that Detroit has a roster of players who can finish, but he believes Washington does as well. And if he closes his eyes just enough, his 38-year-old body is young again, in his bedroom in Petrolia, Ontario, dreaming of the crowd and the noise and the nasal-voiced man calling his name. He is scoring the ultimate overtime game-winner, and the Capitals finally have the Stanley Cup.

"The bottom line is that it always comes down to big goals like that in a Stanley Cup finals," he said. "The teams are pretty even, and it's usually tight games, one-goal games. It comes down to who can execute at the right time."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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