Washington started off this day as the only city with professional sports teams still playing in both the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League. On this Monday morning, it's Mudville.
The Bullets spent a week in Philadelphia this afternoon, losing to the 76ers, 134-109, after falling behind by 18 after the first quarter. The Capitals' fate -- a 2-1 loss to the Rangers in the Big Apple tonight -- might appear in a New York tabloid headline this way: "Rangers to Caps: Drop Dead."
When the Capitals lined up at the end of a long night to shake hands with their conquerors, the Washington players' eyes glistened. Pierre Larouche, who scored the Rangers' two goals, slipped his arm around Scott Stevens' neck, as if to try to raise his spirits. Enough debris to fill a small truck sailed out onto the Madison Square Garden ice. One last great, sustained roar shook the place. For the Capitals, it was the end -- the bitter end.
"I don't think anybody realizes now that it's over," said Gaetan Duchesne, moments later in the locker room of the inconsolable Capitals. "Tomorrow, we'll wake up and know the season is over. No practice. Maybe a meeting. That's it. We worked so hard the whole season. That's tough to accept."
Duchesne flipped a wet towel onto the floor. In another corner, Larry Murphy sat holding a towel to his face -- not moving, not speaking. "I hope they go all the way," Mike Gartner said of the Rangers. "You want to get beat by the best."
It was a doubly difficult day for Bullets and Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who began the day at home, then flew to Philadelphia for the Bullets game, flew on to New York for the Capitals game, and late tonight took the longest flight of all, back home.
"I'm obviously disappointed," said Pollin. "Our guys gave it all they had. I'm proud of them.
"The Capitals had a fantastic year. And the Bullets, considering all the injuries, had an excellent year as well."
In Philadelphia this afternoon, the Bullets began as if they had camped out at Valley Forge, and it was December, not late April. They were as cold as a basketball team gets, while the 76ers sizzled. Rebounds and fast breaks by the 76ers overwhelmed the Bullets with their turnovers and no breaks. Charles Barkley was one wide body who could get airborne with a runway no longer than the court. And soaring right along with him were rookie Terry Catledge and a resuscitated Dr. J, the veteran Julius Erving.
It was an inglorious end for the Bullets, who in Game 1 heroically made the greatest comeback in the history of NBA playoffs -- 18 straight points to win on a last second three-point basket by Dudley Bradley. The desperate shot and improbable victory created a wave of emotion that crested with a second victory, but then broke. Still, the Bullets gave the world a Sudanese center, and for the entire offseason their fans can beat time with the Manute Bol video.
Here, the Capitals found a whole city waiting for them -- and it wasn't for a party to their liking. Rangers fans came to Madison Square Garden pleasantly puzzled. How could their lovable .500 team, which had barely squeezed into the playoffs and finished near the bottom in NHL offense, keep coming back against a team that was No. 2 in defense and supposedly one of the creamier clubs of the league?
Never mind. New York fans were talking "miracle."
Said Rangers left wing Don Maloney, before the game: "It's amazing. And you can't give enough credit to the guy in the net."
That would be goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who said: "Everybody has to come together and really want it. That's the feeling I have and that's the feeling I think everybody has."
When the public address announcer said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," you would have thought the Rangers already had won. And when the Rangers took the ice, it might be said, you never heard such cheering.
They cheered right over top of the national anthem, confetti was flung from the balcony, and a banner unfurled declaring, "No Mercy."
The Rangers showed no mercy. For the longest time, the Capitals could put nothing into the net except Vanbiesbrouck himself, which Stevens did with a mighty bang during the second period. But in hockey, it only counts when the little black disk goes in.
Vanbiesbrouck foiled the Capitals time and again, and when the final buzzer sounded he was mobbed by his teammates.
It was 10:23 p.m. when the Capitals' season ended. They trudged off the ice -- beaten not by the Islanders this year, but by yet another New York team.
Thousands simply stood and cheered, and showed no signs of moving toward the exit. "They'll be here until four in the morning," said a happy Garden attendant.