Time for Capital Celebration
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 1998; Page D1
Defenseman Calle Johansson almost had time to let it all sink in yesterday, but the phone kept ringing. There were people wishing him well and people asking for tickets and people calling from Sweden who just wanted to know what it felt like to be on the ice at Marine Midland Arena on Thursday night when the Washington Capitals earned their first berth in the Stanley Cup finals with a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres.
Left wing Joe Juneau's goal less than seven minutes into the extra frame started a stream of moments that will take much more than just one day for the Capitals to digest. When Juneau scored, the Capitals wrapped up the Eastern Conference championship, four games to two, and earned the first Prince of Wales trophy in the team's 24-year history. The Capitals will face the winner of the Western Conference finals, but that is something they will take up in a few days, when practices resume.
The past 24 hours were reserved for celebrations, starting as soon players piled on top of each other on the ice as a hostile Buffalo crowd looked on. The festivities were moved to the dressing room and then to the team plane, where captain Dale Hunter, Johansson's best friend and the Capital who had waited the longest for this moment, gave a toast. And slowly, a rumor began circulating: People were waiting for the team at Piney Orchard. About 2,000 people, according to Anne Arundel County fire department estimates.
"It was unbelievable," said Johansson, a sentiment echoed yesterday by a half-dozen players, veterans who thought they had seen it all. "You just really don't think that people here would do that. I mean, Piney Orchard is a long way from where a lot of people live, but people were there from Virginia and everything. Plus, it was 2:30 in the morning, and the next day was a work day, but they waited for us for something like two hours.
"It was amazing to see how much people actually cared. You know they are going to cheer when you are at an arena and you win a game, but to come out of the way like that just to welcome us home and congratulate us, it was really special."
With Piney Orchard's parking lot jammed full, cars lined up for about a half-mile along the street in front of the building, parking haphazardly along the side of the road. There was so much traffic that police blocked off one side of the road so the team bus could make its way through from the airport in Baltimore.
The Capitals filed off the bus behind Coach Ron Wilson and General Manager George McPhee. Giving high-fives and hugs along the way, they marched into the building and through a sea of people until they got onto the ice, standing on the slippery surface in their street shoes because there was nowhere else to go.
One by one, some of the team's more recognizable players stepped forward, getting cheers from the crowd. Seeing the fans' reaction to the white "Eastern Conference Champs" ballcaps they had been given during the postgame celebration in Buffalo, several players began tossing their hats into the crowd. Suddenly, a group led by goaltender Olaf Kolzig grabbed Esa Tikkanen and coaxed him to shed his "Eastern Conference Champions" T-shirt and toss it into the stands. Tikkanen then began to flex in mock poses, having as much fun as the fans who had their faces pressed against the glass.
"All of us have waited so long for this," said Mary Jean Maness, a Capitals fan since 1979. She was standing amid a sea of Capitals jerseys, some with the new eagle logo and the names Oates, Bondra and Kolzig plastered on the back, others with the old-style white-and-red sweaters with names such as Langway and Ciccarelli.
"After some of the losses and disappointments we've had, I sometimes thought we would never get this far," she said. "But something told me this year's team was different."
This team was certainly in a different situation, its path to the Stanley Cup finals made easier when the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference fell in the opening round. Some of Washington's old nemeses were also gone, with Mario Lemieux safely in retirement and the "three-games-to-one curse" slowly dispelled. There was a better mix of styles, with some players who could grind out a win, as the Capitals needed in Game 4 against Buffalo, and others who could win on speed and power and flash, as they needed in Game 3.
Most of all, however, the Capitals had an advantage in goal. Kolzig was clearly better than Boston's Byron Dafoe or Ottawa goaltenders Ron Tugnutt and Damian Rhodes, and Kolzig even managed to outplay Buffalo's Dominik Hasek, who likely will win his second consecutive most valuable player award next month.
"It was a combination of hard work, luck, determination, character everything it takes to be a champion," Kolzig said. He was quick to point out, however, that the Capitals' work was nowhere near done. Washington has been toting a clipboard for the past two months with the number of wins remaining to earn the Stanley Cup. It is once again hanging in the dressing room at Piney Orchard, the number "4" in bold lettering as a reminder.
"This has been great, but really, the first time for me might have been more exciting because I was younger," said defenseman Mark Tinordi, who made it to the Stanley Cup finals with the Minnesota North Stars in 1991 before losing, four games to two, to Pittsburgh. "This time, we know we've gotten here, but we're still a long ways from winning the Cup. Having lost in the finals before, I guess I'm more conservative. Still, this is a lot of fun."
Capitals Notes: Single-game tickets for the Stanley Cup finals sold out on Thursday, but the Capitals' advanced sales office is still holding about 1,000 tickets for fans who purchase a partial season-ticket plan for next season. Spokesman Matt Williams said such an arrangement has been standard throughout the playoffs. . . . Owner Abe Pollin is renting a plane to fly his 100-person staff to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, which will be played at the Western Conference site.
Special correspondent Will Kuhns contributed to this report.
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