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  Capitals Finished by Slow Start
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 1998; Page C1

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DETROIT, June 9 — With their uniforms cleanly pressed and their game plan firmly in hand, the Washington Capitals took the ice at Joe Louis Arena tonight ready to charge into their first Stanley Cup finals. They promptly stumbled, and although they got back up for another rush, it was too late to catch up to the Detroit Red Wings, who took a one-game-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series with a 2-1 victory.

The game turned when the Red Wings scored on consecutive shots in a 2-minute 14-second span of the first period. The Capitals then went without a shot in the first nine minutes of the second period, and although a goal from rookie Richard Zednik got the offense moving again, the Capitals were never able to overcome that initial lapse.

Both teams battled smartly in the third period, forcing goaltenders Olaf Kolzig (29 saves) and Chris Osgood (16 saves) to play their best games, and both did, leaving Detroit in control and the sellout crowd of 19,983 driving home happy. The teams play Game 2 here on Thursday before the series moves back to Washington.

"We had a couple of shifts where our number one and number two lines got outplayed by their number three and number four lines, and it was really a couple of shifts in the game that made the difference," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "We got a little casual, a little lackadaisical with the puck, and they made us pay, 2-0.

"It took us a little while from that point, because you're down 2-0 in the first game and it's a little overwhelming. For a lot of people, it was our first crack at the finals. But then I think we really believe they are a team just like us. I don't think our players feel they've been dominated by any stretch of the imagination."

Despite being outshot by 31-17, the Capitals' resurgence in the final 30 minutes of the game should give them more confidence heading into Game 2. Still, since 1939, the team that won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals has gone on to win the series 80 percent of the time. Even that doesn't take into account the edge the Red Wings took into tonight's game as the defending Stanley Cup champions, an advantage they pressed from the beginning of the game.

After a nice scoring chance by the Capitals less than two minutes into the first period, Washington had trouble crossing the Detroit blueline, even on an early power play. Except for brief interludes, the rest of the period consisted of Red Wings chances, Red Wings cheers and, eventually, Red Wings goals.

Detroit finally broke through after right wing Joe Kocur found himself alone in the front of the net and center Doug Brown poised for the perfect pass.

Defenseman Joe Reekie attempted to stop the feed with a dive to the ice, but the puck sneaked under his chest, and Kocur was able to knock it in to the exposed side of the net 14:04 into the game.

Ear-splitting cheers shook the arena, and many fans were still standing when defenseman Niklas Lidstrom extended Detroit's lead to 2-0 just over two minutes later, using left wing Tomas Holmstrom's perfect screen. The fans, already rowdy, roared again. The Capitals, in relative disarray after Kocur's goal, sagged even lower.

"They scored twice on a couple of bad plays," left wing Joe Juneau said. "I thought we started pretty good, but as soon as they got the first goal, we started panicking. The breakouts were awful and we started giving the puck away."

The Capitals seemed to regroup defensively during the first intermission, but they continued to struggle offensively in the second period. They kept working their way over the Detroit blueline, and the Red Wings kept sweeping the puck back into the neutral zone. Washington didn't record a shot until just after the nine-minute mark, and when they did, Osgood was able to make a glove save on defenseman Phil Housley.

Still, the Capitals kept working and eventually made some progress. Right wing Peter Bondra started Washington's goal with an excellent play to keep the puck in the Red Wings' zone. Center Andrei Nikolishin then took the puck into the slot and dropped it back to Zednik, who let loose a hard slap shot that sailed between Kocur and former Capitals defenseman Larry Murphy. The puck nicked Osgood's blocker before flying into the net at 15:57.

"The second period — we have got to do a lot better than that overall," Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman said. "After we scored the two goals, we seemed to be a little mixed up."

A deep silence fell over the arena as the Capitals celebrated Zednik's goal, and the rest of the game was a battle of close calls on both ends. In between, Washington center Dale Hunter did a thorough job of hassling Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, twice sitting on him in open ice and once drawing Yzerman into a penalty. But neither Hunter's efforts nor his teammates' near the net could tie the game for Washington, and the Capitals were left to ponder their strategies for Game 2.

"I think we were tight, we showed the effects of a layoff, and we seemed to play much better when we find ourselves in a rhythm, and that's what I'm looking forward to coming back on Thursday," Wilson said. "We felt we put ourselves in a position to win Game 1 and we didn't. Back to the drawing board, and if we come out with the same effort we had over the last 30 minutes, we'll be okay."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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