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 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  Capitals Revel in First Trip to Finals
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 1998; Page A1


Juneau Celebrates
Joe Juneau celebrates his overtime goal that clinched the NHL Eastern Conference.
(Bill Sikes/AP)
BUFFALO, June 4 — There were no cheers, only jeers from the 18,595 Buffalo fans tonight. But it didn't matter, as the Washington Capitals celebrated their most glorious moment in team history tonight, defeating the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in overtime to clinch the National Hockey Leagues's Eastern Conference title and earn their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals after 24 years of trying.

With the victory at Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena, the Capitals vanquished a team anchored by Olympic gold-medalist Dominik Hasek, the best goaltender in the game; shed their reputation for not winning the big game; and earned the right to compete for the most famous trophy in professional sports.

After the victory, team captain Dale Hunter held aloft the Prince of Wales Trophy, awarded to the Eastern Conference champion, bringing his teammates nearly to tears.

"It's been a long time coming, to get the chance to win the Stanley Cup championship," said Hunter, an 18-year veteran. "It's just an unbelievable feeling."

The elegant silver trophy was passed among the players and made its way into the locker room, where Capitals took turns posing for pictures with it wearing nothing but towels and freshly-embroidered championship hats.

Should the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, they'll join Washington's Redskins (1983, 1988 and 1992), former NBA Bullets (now Wizards),(1978) soccer's D.C. United (1996 and 1997) and the Washington Senators (1924) in bringing their sport's ultimate title home to the nation's capital. Simply earning a shot to do so makes them, overnight, the city's most unexpected heroes.

As Washington-area fans cheered in homes and bars throughout the region, center Joe Juneau scored the game-winning goal six minutes 24 seconds into overtime, hammering a rebounded shot by Brian Bellows past Hasek's glove. Capitals' goaltender Olaf Kolzig, whose strapping size and tenacity has earned him the nickname "Godzilla," played a heroic part, too, stopping 39 of the Sabres' 41 shots.

It was a stunning reversal of fortune for a team that didn't even make the playoffs last season and did not win more games than they lost until their ninth season in the league after having a first year record of 8-67-5.

The Capitals enjoyed solid support through their early years at suburban Maryland's US Airways Arena, but wore fans' patience during the past decade by collapsing three times during playoff runs after taking 3-1 leads. In December they picked up stakes for Washington's gleaming $200 million MCI Center, a move many feared would alienate many of their most loyal backers.

But tonight, having let the Sabres cut the Capitals margin in the Eastern Conference final series to 3-2 Tuesday night at MCI Center, the Capitals shook off their playoff jinx to win their biggest game ever.

At Mister Days, a downtown Washington sports bar, the mood ranged from glum to to glee from minute to minute. When the Caps won the game, there was, of course, jubilation.

The crowd, mostly in their 20s and 30s, leaped from their seats, screaming and cheering, giving high-fives, acting as though they'd won the lottery.

"It feels great, it's been a long time coming," said Carter Mitchell, 23, of Chevy Chase. "Of course I knew they were going to do it. After 24 years they had to win one. Now I've got to get some tickets."

Then with a look of exhaustion, he said above the din of the crowd: "It's been a long game. I'm tired."

Drew Tierney, 33, of Washington, cheered for the Capitals throughout the game, sometimes yelling, helping give an ambience of an arena. But shortly after the win, shortly after the collective cheers dissipated, he remarked: "What do you say? I'm speechless."

Well, almost.

"We're going to the show," he added quickly. "No one expected these guys to get past the second round. That they're going to the Stanley Cup is amazing."

To win the Stanley Cup, they'll have to wrestle it from either the defending champion Detroit Red Wings or the upstart Dallas Stars. Detroit, which leads the Western Conference series 3-2, can clinch with a victory Friday at home.

The Capitals have four days to prepare for the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals, which opens Tuesday at either Dallas or Detroit. Games 3 and 4 will be played at MCI Center June 13 and 16 — the biggest games in the arena's young history and the most vital in the Capitals' near quarter-century.

It is the realization of a dream for the Capitals. Only five among the current roster have won a Stanley Cup and know the rare privilege of joining hockey greats Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky in having their names' etched on the coveted silver trophy.

"I know the great feeling when you win and know the hollow feeling when you lose," said Bellows, a member of Montreal's 1992-93 championship team. "I'm going to try to explain the difference next week."

Few would have given the Capitals any prayer of playing for the Cup at the start of this improbable season.

The team had a new coach in Ron Wilson and a roster dominated by veteran players. Their best, Peter Bondra, was sidelined several games early in the playoffs by knee and ankle injuries. And Kolzig, who since has become one of hockey's most feared netminders, was largely unheralded last fall.

Sudden-death overtime was tense, testing the acumen and acrobatics of both goal-tenders. When Bellows' shot to Hasek's right side bounced back, Juneau swept in from the opposite side and made Hasek pay.

Juneau thrust his arms in the air and was mobbed by his teammates, who followed Hunter in taking turns carrying the trophy around the ice.

Winger Chris Simon, one of the five Capitals to have won a Stanley Cup, hopes his teammates will soon share that thrill.

"When you win the Stanley Cup, no one can take that away from you," Simon said. "No matter what you do, you'll always have your name on that trophy."

Some had reservations from the outset.

"I've lived in this area all my life and I've watched the Caps since I was little," said Jennifer Pennybacker, 25, of Washington. "I hope they don't break my heart. I do have a bad feeling about this game."

As the game went into overtime she said: "I'm not happy. I'm okay. But I've got an upset stomach. I don't feel too well."

But a few minutes later, victory belonged to Washington. "I'm in shock. They proved me wrong," she said. "This is amazing. It's a new day."

Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report from Washington.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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