Name it, the Capitals-Islanders series had it. Most of all, it had emotion; neither team likes the other. It had high stakes, excited crowds, heroes and villains, pros playing with pain and high purpose. It had fast skating and hard hitting -- bodies ridden into the boards sounded like railroad cars coupling. It had shots that couldn't be seen to be believed. It was a collision of Capitals hope and Islanders history.
The Capitals went into battle with a plan. Rod Langway kept repeating it: "Keep the puck out of trouble. Don't try to do too much. Keep under control."
The Islanders tried one thing, then another.
In Game 1, they tried to bully the Capitals. The Capitals fought back, and one result was that the penalty boxes resembled a Metro train at rush hour. SRO. After that didn't work, the Islanders decided to take it to Capitals goalie Pete Peeters with a rush from the first faceoff of Game 2. They attacked in waves of skirmishers, like 19th Century warriors, while Peeters laid back and picked them all off.
Both games, the Capital Centre sellout crowds served as a seventh man. They waved on the Capitals with white towels, booed the Islanders and cheered even the announcement of newly enlarged bathrooms -- "Big Johns."
One could tell the import of the games from the demeanor of the coaches.
At postgame news conferences, it was impossible to know who won by looking at the faces of the Islanders' Al Arbour or the Capitals' Bryan Murray. Not until late in the question-and-answer period following Game 2 when Murray smiled -- just once. Quickly, he looked dour again. The Capitals had only won two and they had to win three.
To the Island. Besides their big red-and-blue luggage bags, thrown into a truck and dispatched to the airport, the Capitals took with them the feeling that, after three years of playoff defeats by the Islanders, they could no longer be denied. Craig Laughlin looked up from a sheet of statistics he was reading after Friday's practice. "It's not the same as last year. We went to Long Island with two victories, but even though we had won twice it was by the bounces of the puck. That's why they stormed back to win. Now we're confident. They know we're confident."
The feeling among the Capitals now was that, while they were playing as well as they had hoped to, the mysteries of the game were favoring them as well. One could expect something major from Scott Stevens; the series' biggest goal probably was his Game 2 go-ahead shot just nine seconds after the Islanders had tied, 2-2, late in the second period. But who would have counted on Greg Smith's earlier goal? It was his first as a Capital.
Smith chewed on an explanation Friday as well as his lunchtime pizza. "Hey," he said, "even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while."
Scores of fans at Capital Centre last week wore their Capitals sweaters, often with the names of heroes across the backs. Two "Carpenters" hustled along the concourse. One man had on a No. 1 Pat Riggin white sweater, red shorts, blue cap with a red peak and his Capitals towel on his belt. As well as Pete Peeters was playing, Boston-based Riggin was not completely forgotten.
The fans were merciless toward Arbour, Islanders goalie Bill Smith and teammate Denis Potvin. Bengt Gustafsson's big season ended when he was tripped by Potvin March 28, and it seems no Capitals fan would let Potvin forget this.
But the crowds' favorite chant was, "Pete, Pete, Pete." A man in a fedora danced with a puck he had caught. When the big guys would lock up near the boards, the Capitals' Langway and the Islanders' Clark Gillies (6 feet 3, 214, out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan), a roar would ensue. As it did when the Capitals' John Barrett and Alan Haworth sandwiched Greg Gilbert. And anytime the Capitals scored.
Signs of the times: "Let's Go Caps," "Win It All!" A man brought a sign to Capitals practice Friday: "No Mercy! Victory Saturday. Strike First, Strike Fast, Work Hard, Win!" "That's the formula," he said, as outside the team's locker room he held up his message so each player could see it as he left for New York.
The word "history" kept coming up during this series, references to the Capitals' failure in recent seasons to beat the Islanders in the playoffs.
"History is exactly that," said Murray. "It's something we learn from."
Gaetan Duchesne: "Last year was an experience. This time, we want to take it game by game, don't look too forward. We see what's happened in the past. We take experience from that. I know it gave me a good experience."
Another thing. The Capitals were playing not like a symphony but an FM station: less talk, more rock. "Maybe before," said Duchesne, "we were screaming too much at the referee for what they the Islanders did to us. Now we let it go and play our game. In the past, we were talking too much to the referee. Maybe we forgot to play."
Maybe they had peaked too early last season, Duchesne went on. "Now we're on the way up."
They've been waiting a whole year and, said Murray, adding big, strong players like Kevin Hatcher during the season, then planning for the playoffs.
Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner hobbling back to play in the playoffs, teammates said, gave the Capitals a lift, just as did Peeters' goaltending.
In locker rooms these days, Carpenter and Gartner -- the so-called "Gold Dust Twins" -- wear ice packs on their knees. The Capitals don't have to look far for inspiration.
As for Peeters, he exudes cool. Said Murray, "A half-hour before the game, he's playing Ping-Pong. He creates a good impression of himself for the team." When the team traded for him, said Murray, "We wanted a guy who could play at playoff time. He doesn't give up bad goals. One thing I like about him, if we get ahead, the guy is very tough."
In Game 3, the Capitals got ahead and Peeters indeed was very tough. Washington wrapped up the game, 3-1, and the series, three games to none. They knew their history.