Caps Relish Spoiler's Role
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998; Page E1
DETROIT, June 8 Washington Coach Ron Wilson has gone to great lengths this postseason to paint the Capitals as underdogs, but when the Stanley Cup finals begin Tuesday night, he will not have to use a very wide brush. People in Detroit and around much of the country have anointed the Red Wings such distinct favorites in this best-of-seven series that the joke around Joe Louis Arena today was to forget a four-game sweep because Detroit could win it in three.
The Capitals weren't laughing, but they weren't complaining either.
"This is fine with me; I'd rather they be favored anyway," right wing Brian Bellows said. "Let's face it, they're the defending Stanley Cup champions, and if you look down their lineup you don't see a lot of weaknesses anywhere. We just have to look at the big picture. They are still in the same league as us, and I think we match up half-decently against them. It will be interesting to see what happens as the game actually comes."
The last three Stanley Cup finals have been four-game sweeps, although the favorite has not always been the winner. In 1995, Detroit was supposed to have the edge over New Jersey, but the Devils prevailed by scoring at key moments. In 1996, Colorado beat Florida as expected, but last season Philadelphia was supposed to have an edge over Detroit because of its size. With the memory of '95 still fresh in their minds, however, the Red Wings overmatched the Flyers' goaltenders and claimed their first Stanley Cup in 43 years.
Detroit is trying to become the first team to repeat since Pittsburgh won in 1991 and 1992, and they have several of the elements for a mini-dynasty. Their forwards are talented and fast and their defense is led by Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom. Goaltender Chris Osgood has been a flash point of criticism lately for egregious goals he allowed in Detroit's earlier series, but overall his play has been strong. His confidence has also started to return, thanks to his shutout in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, when the Red Wings clinched their series with Dallas.
Detroit also has Coach Scotty Bowman, the man Wilson calls "the master." Bowman is looking for his eighth Stanley Cup ring, which would tie him with legendary coach Toe Blake for the all-time record. At a news conference this morning, Bowman was asked to reflect on the meaning of such an accomplishment, despite being four wins away from the mark. The Red Wings, aware that such hype could have as damaging an effect on them as on the Capitals, answered several questions today by stressing how seriously they are taking Washington.
"You can't help but have it influence you, but I think in our case we know that it's far from the truth and it motivates us even more to play hard," right wing Doug Brown said of all the talk of a sweep. "Now all of the sudden there are all these grand expectations. Make no mistake about it, we got swept four years ago, and that hurts, and we learned our lesson there. We're still driven to play well."
The Capitals certainly possess some threats to the Red Wings' quest for a second Cup, especially in net, where goaltender Olaf Kolzig has been stellar. His size gives him some obvious advantages over shooters, but Kolzig's positioning has also greatly improved this season, making him harder to beat on an initial shot and even on a rebound. Detroit intends to create as much traffic as possible in front of Kolzig, noting that Buffalo's only success against him in the Eastern Conference finals came when too many bodies in front of the puck blocked his line of vision.
In response, Washington will try to keep the puck to the outside of its own zone, use the boards effectively and take extra care when in possession of the puck, as the Red Wings are expert at pouncing on turnovers. Wilson said he hasn't yet decided whether he will use left wing Esa Tikkanen to shadow Detroit stars Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov, preferring instead to see how Game 1 develops. Detroit's Kris Draper, often put on a line with Kirk Maltby and either Joey Kocur or Darren McCarty, is more certain he will be assigned to check Washington's line of Peter Bondra, Andrei Nikolishin and Richard Zednik, as the threesome was responsible for a chunk of Washington's goals against the Sabres.
Gritty left wing Brent Gilchrist, who would also usually take on a checking role, will be out for the rest of the postseason with a torn groin tendon. But even without Gilchrist pestering them the Capitals will have to be careful to stay out of the penalty box. Throughout the postseason, they have found themselves killing opponents' power plays much more often than going on the power play themselves.
"We have to be more disciplined than we have been," Wilson said. "We're playing a veteran team, even more veteran than us in terms of going deep into the playoffs. They won a Stanley Cup last year, and anything we say or do is not going to intimidate this team, so we're going to have to go on the ice and get the job done."
Wilson rattled off a few of Detroit's stronger players, but he stopped short when asked whether the Capitals believed they could overcome such a team, especially one the rest of the hockey world expects to dominate.
"They believe, ask them," Wilson said. "I know our players believe they can win. We're satisfied with what we've accomplished and the attention we're finally getting in Washington is really nice, but I don't sense that our guys think this is over."
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