Remember the pictures. Remember the five Capitals embracing. They worked for two minutes to get the goal that might have meant the playoffs. They did no toe dance of celebration, the silly kind that accompanies ordinary goals. For this one that meant so much, the five of them, partners in joyous exhaustion, huddled in front of the Atlanta goal and shared the silence of proud work done well.
Of the 21 National Hockey League teams, only the spanking new members taken in this season from a second league have never made the NHL playoffs -- only those rookies . . . and the ever-struggling Capitals, now 6 years old, now on the rise, but still on the outside looking in.
Remember the picture. The minutes were moving. With just under 10 minutes to play, the Capitals took a 4-3 lead over an Atlanta team already in the playoffs for the sixth time. Three times this season the Caps had lost to the Flames. But the minutes were disappearing . . . eight, seven, five, and now three minutes to go.
It had been beautiful, the power play that gave the Caps that 4-3 lead. For 79 games, these Caps had been weaklings at the power play, scoring with a man advantage only 18.1 percent of the opportunities. Last night, though, they scored three times in seven chances, more than double their norm. The most beautiful goal was the last, with 9:50 to play, a goal that was born of the idea that the Flames would have a better chance stoppng the Pittsburgh Steelers than the Caps at this moment in their history.
This was the Caps' time. For two full minutes, they laid siege to Atlanta goaltender Pat Riggin. Remember the pictures of it.
From the blueline on the left, Robert Picard slaps a screamer past Riggin's glove side, setting off a frantic scraping battle for the puck against the sideboard. The puck comes back to Picard, whose second slap shot is smothered at the stick face . . . and the sellout crowd of 18,130 is sharing one thought: This is the time, this is when the Caps must do it.
Ryan Walter, the captain, takes the smothered puck toward the net, where a soft shot gets nothing, but Bengt Gustaffson has the puck now, his stick cranked high for a slap shot that Atlanta's Phil Russell stops with his skates. . . . And the puck, astonishingly, squiggles back to Picard, who already has a goal and two assists, who is a Montrealer, a kid who dreamed of Stanley Cups, who never dreamed of working this hard just to finish 16th and so make the playoffs.
Picard's third shot of the assault rebounds out to Mike Garner on the right side.Once, he fakes a slap shot. Twice the fake. Now comes the line drive to the corner of the net, there for Dennis Maruk to deflect past the ubiquitous Riggin.
But Maruk misses it. He mucks it out of the corner, the little guy moving aside an Atlanta brute, and 10 seconds later -- the sides even by now -- Gartner again sends the puck to the same spot, to that corner where Maruk is waiting, and this time it works.
Goal, Washington. It is 4-3. Remember the picture. These are the Capitals who have known no success. By February every year, they are dead. This time, from Feb. 5 on they had the sixth-best record in the NHL. Now, ahead by 4-3, the five of them stood in silence, arms around each other, while the arena shook with the thunder of heroic victory.
The building was quiet at noon. The Caps' coach, Gary Green, sat in his office with his notes written on the backs of envelopes. He had his game plan there, which line to use against which, how the Flames brought the puck out of their end, his notes on what he would say to his players.
I'll tell the team that Atlanta is in a precarious position and they should expect a very, very strong game," Green said. This was by way of explaining that Atlanta, though already qualified for the playoffs and unable to gain a home-ice advantage whatever happened with the Caps, had an important stake in the game. a
"Atlanta has never done well in the playoffs," Green said. "Two years ago, they lost their last game to the Caps -- and then lost three straight in the playoffs. There isn't any team that can afford to play badly in the last game of the season going into the playoffs.
"It will be no easy match."
The Caps heard the boss. They played as if the freedom of the republic were at stake. Though Atlanta scored first on a shorthanded goal, an embarrassment that produced a round of boos, the Caps tied it 30 seconds later. By the end of the first period, Washington led, 3-2, allowing Atlanta to tie it with three minutes left in the second period.
"I'll tell the team where we stand in relation to the playoffs," Green had said at noon. On his office wall is a poster: "Countdown to the Playoffs." He put it up Dec. 15, a month after he was hired. He and Max McNab, the general manager, figured then that 70 points would get a team into the playoffs. To get 70 points, "We would have to play .550 hockey," Green said.
At noon the Caps were in 17th place with 66 points.
"Obviously, today is pretty easy to analyze," Green said with a smile. "It doesn't take anybody too smart to understand what we have to do tonight. We have to win -- and pray that Vancouver (with 68 points) loses tonight. Sometime, a coach has to give a wakeup call to the guys.I don't have to tonight."
If not artistic successes -- the Caps failed on an early five-on-three power play . . . they allowed that shorthanded goal -- the Capitals earned the thunder of appreciation that came when they went ahead, 4-3, earned it by diving for pucks, flying into the Flames, playing with the reckless abandon Bear Bryant loves so.
They still needed Vancouver to lose, and Green had made plans to stay in the building until he heard that score three hours before his game. But with time vanishing . . . down to three minutes now, three minutes from a nice accomplishment in a season of promise . . . with the Flames flickering, suddenly they were on a break, suddenly Ken Houston was in front of the Caps' goal, daring Wayne Stephenson to find a way to stop him.
Goal, Atlanta. It is 4-4. The Caps would get only one more shot on goal. Afterward, the Flame captain, Jean Pronovost, would say, "The Washington Capitals are the team of the future in the NHL." And with one second to go, when the clock was stopped for a faceoff, the building was a hall of silence.
Then the customers knew it was time tyo tell the Caps what they thought of them. They came off their seats. They applauded. They waved banners. They twirled handkerchiefs. As Robert Picard glided to nowhere, head down, he raised his stick overhead and then slammed it against the ice. Remember the pictures.