Washington Set to Make Run for Stanley Cup

Hockey games in October count the same as ones in April, yet these games of spring can be so different.

For the Washington Capitals, first place has come down to the final hours of the regular season. Win or lose first place, they immediately face the most glorious battles a hockey team can wage, the playoffs and a chance to win the coveted Stanley Cup. The Capitals have reached the brink. Unlike the early games months ago, the last games of the Capitals' season are the most publicized, pressurized, scrutinized games of all.

"It's a full step of speed faster on the ice," said tall Rod Langway, the Capitals' captain and standout defenseman, the only one of them who has experienced Stanley Cup victory, as a rookie with Montreal in 1978-79. "Believe it or not, practice is put up a step. Everything is put up a step. You put everything into everything."

These days, Langway exists almost solely for hockey. "Right now," he said, "it's tough for me to have a pregame sleep. But if I wasn't that way, I'd think I wasn't as intense as I should be. I can't stay at home during the playoffs. I stay in a hotel. Hockey's it."

If the Capitals do not have a whole team of Langways, with his talent and intensity -- who does? -- they have plenty. Veterans. A desire, if not a yearning, to win the Cup. Only two questions seem unanswered: Can they overcome injuries to center Bengt Gustafsson and winger Mike Gartner? How will they take to the pressure? To the first question, the Capitals insist -- in no uncertain terms -- they can overcome the injuries. Who can say about pressure?

Yes, the Capitals are ready. "We're a veteran enough hockey team to realize what's at stake here," said David Poile, the general manager.

They want to do well. "We've been close so many times," said veteran winger Bob Gould. "We've had great regular seasons. So now it's not a desperation, but, I'll tell you, I'll be disappointed if we don't get out of our division in the playoffs and into the semifinals. If we don't come out and do well in the playoffs, I'd be very disappointed."

The emotion of the Capitals is clear. On Tuesday, their pregame skate was full of vigor and the locker room was alive with music and talk. That night, for the first time since last weekend's season-ending injury to Gustafsson, they played like themselves -- maybe not the whole time, but enough of the time, handling Pittsburgh with Pete Peeters outstanding in goal. Back in the locker room, they felt happy, confident, willing. "We're not expecting any favors," said Coach Bryan Murray.

This week, the Capitals packed lifetimes of hope into each day. The game-day schedule: a workout; a rest; back to Capital Centre; the wait; the game; the late-night unwinding; a little sleep; to practice again in the morning.

Already they're winners, but they want to be Winners -- like the Flyers when they were winning Stanley Cups in the '70s, then the Islanders, now the Oilers. They want to be winners in the sense Peeters meant when, in talking about the Islanders and ticking off the names -- Smith, Trottier, Bossy, Potvin, Gillies, the Sutters -- he said, "You can see they're winners. They're all winners!"

This has been the Capitals' fourth straight stellar season, but they do not seem content to be one of the best. To watch this team close up, even briefly, is to realize how sharply different this Canadian sport is from U.S. ones such as football, baseball and basketball. It's far more straightforward a game -- "We've got to take it to 'em tonight," or, "You get on Lemieux and stay on him." Forget the cunning; there's skill, of course, and tactics, plenty of them, but there's no flea-flicker, curve ball or back-door basket involved.

And like their game, the players are straightforward. Ask a question, you get an answer. They're even open about their ambition: They make clear it's the Cup they want; they're not trying to sneak up on it so as not to be embarrassed if they fail.

"When I was in Philadelphia," said Peeters, "Pete Rose was sitting out and Pete Rose was upset about not playing. They asked him about it and he said, 'I'm not afraid to fail. I like to be put up there. I like pressure.' That's the key. You can't be afraid to fail."

As Poile said, the Capitals appear to "realize what's at stake," what must be done. All they have to do is do it.

Tuesday morning, most lights in Capital Centre are off. The lights over the ice are on, and the ice glows in the dark arena. Figures in green, red, yellow sweaters, in waves of three and four, skate up and down, streaking like bandits.

Shortly, many line up in a large semicircle, each taking a turn with a slap shot at Peeters. He'll be the goalie tonight, and in preparation they work him over good. Slap. Slap. Slap. Boing, one shot hits the pipe. Thunk, into his glove. Another into the glove. What work this is, having these pucks flying at you so fast they're barely visible. Peeters must love it. He's chirping, behind his face cage.

They move closer and shoot. Greg Adams swings and misses. A howl goes up from somewhere in the half-light, but Adams circles around and sends a sharp little shot, a zinger, at Peeters, as if evening the score. Peeters bats it away, like shooing a gnat. Ten minutes before the end of this "skate," Peeters slides away in his bulky padding toward the rink door, one of the 20, yet a man apart.

A player on the far side crows, "Come back, Pete."

His stall is next to the locker room door. The music blares from the black box above his head. Like Langway, Peeters has been through big games -- 41 playoff games for Philadelphia and Boston. He was in goal for Team Canada's 3-2 overtime victory over the Soviet Union in the 1984 Canada Cup tournament, called by many one of the greatest hockey games ever played. He knows how to win.

"There's no secret or anything," he said. "Just four words. Guts. Desire. Determination. Just being poised, like don't lose your cool.

"If you can do these four things, you'll be doing a pretty good job in the playoffs."

What can there be about hockey that Peeters doesn't know? He was born in Edmonton, he played amateur for the Medicine Hat Tigers. In the Flyers system, he led Maine to two Calder Cups, the American Hockey League's Stanley Cup equivalent. Of Maine, he said, "We had many veteran hockey players on the team. That's where I started to learn how tough it is to win, how much it means to win."

Then to Philadelphia, where he learned more -- from Bobby Clarke and Co. "They were teaching me in a better league how to play under pressure," Peeters said, "being in total control of your emotions so that you can concentrate on what's going on on the ice."

It's easier said than done.

"What differentiates between a superstar and a fringe player is a superstar knows how to make it into an everyday situation and put that pressure into a closet," he said. The "superstar" is a natural in every way.

"With other people," Peeters added, "it takes experience. Four, five years. For most people it's a learned skill."

Peeters always has been learning. At Boston, former goalie Gerry Cheevers was his coach, and "he wanted to play me every game. I found out I thrived on work." For his 1982-83 performance, he won the goalie's top award, the Vezina Trophy. Last Nov. 14, he came to Washington in exchange for goalie Pat Riggin. At 28, Peeters is in his prime, ready for the playoffs and, like Pete Rose, ready to step up.

But wait. He wants to make a point. In hockey, he said, one man can't make the difference.

It's a team game -- a cliche when uttered in other sports, but in hockey perhaps not so.

"With due respect for baseball, basketball and football," said Poile, "hockey is the premier team sport. In those sports, any individual can do it. In basketball, a big center can be the difference. Eddie Murray can step up and hit a home run."

If the "team" concept is a hockey truth, it is also, now, a convenient truth for the Capitals. With Gustafsson and Gartner out, someone else should be able to fill in. So they say. "If you do have a system and a style, which the Capitals do -- a way of playing and a way of winning -- then we should be able to compensate for a player missing because of injury," said Poile.

The potential difficulty with the injuries, Poile says, is less a matter of depth than the shifting of players from one line to another. "You have to come up with the right line combinations," he said. "A player needs to play with another player a fair amount of time. Now you have to have the right combinations on short notice."

And Langway on the "team" concept: "When you win a championship, it's not just because of one or two guys. With the Canadiens, you always seemed to get the big play from the third- or fourth-line guys.

"And if you didn't do the job, somebody would cover up for you."

These were the Canadiens, with Langway the rookie joining them for their fourth straight Stanley Cup. "We had the players," he said.

That's what will be said of the Capitals if they can go as far as they hope to in the playoffs. Said Langway: "We're right there, I believe."

Peeters knows how difficult it is to win a championship. "It's tough to knock down a winner," he said, "because they have so much pride."

This might explain in part why hockey teams can repeat championships -- two, three, four in a row -- whereas in recent years in other sports, champions often quickly become also-rans.

Hockey players don't seem to like money any less than other pro athletes. But it hasn't spoiled great teams. They grab the Stanley Cup and hold on to it, for their lives.

Picture this in some other sport. It's early afternoon Tuesday, time for the Pittsburgh Penguins' game-day skate. They take the Capital Centre ice, and there in the stands, casually sipping coffee, still in his blue long-sleeved undershirt after his own team's skate, is Bryan Murray. Looking casual but watching intently. Watching the Penguins. And David Poile, standing in the corner, behind the glass. Watching the Penguins.

NFL teams have watchers to guard against watchers. In the recent NCAA tournament, two Michigan State assistant coaches caused a flap by watching Kansas during a practice. An open practice. In the NHL, open means open.

Poile is saying that it would be dangerous to get into a high-scoring game with the Penguins. Mario Lemieux is one of the league's top scorers, and the Penguins have others who can score. By nightfall, one Capitals plan becomes apparent: Without Gustafsson, it falls to Gould to check Lemieux. Gould does, and even scores a goal himself. The final is 5-3, Capitals.

It's the kind of game that lets the Capitals talk easily about losing Gustafsson eight days ago during a defeat by the Islanders, then trying to move on without both him and Gartner and getting only a tie against the Whalers last Saturday. "It was quite a shock for the team," said defenseman Larry Murphy. "Even in Hartford we were a little shaky."

Not now. He was certain: "We can pick up the pieces and continue."

And Gould: "Take a look at Philadelphia. Pelle Lindbergh's death. How do you bounce back? Look what they've done.

"It's the playoffs, and the way things are going for us this year, you can't let things drag you down. I don't think we're a team built on stars. Other guys are important to the team -- we have that kind of attitude. That helps."

A victory helps, too. A pressure game delivered, Peeters walked out of the locker room all smiles, all dressed up in a canary-yellow sport coat as teammates hooted. "Turn out the lights," said winger Gaetan Duchesne, stepping aside like a matador.

No. No. Bright as that coat is, it's too early to turn out the lights.