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 Tony Kornheiser bids farewell to "choking dogs."
 Even after losing, Caps fans note that it was their best season ever.
 Washington's improbable run was ended by the Red Wings.
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 Stanley Cup finals recap
 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  For Caps' Hunter, 'A Big Disappointment'
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 1998; Page C7

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The season Dale Hunter has played a career for came to a close last night.

And like the rest of the Washington Capitals, swept from their first Stanley Cup finals by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings, Hunter faces a summer in which he'll struggle to remember the good and not be haunted by the heartbreak.

"It's a big disappointment," said Hunter, 37, after last night's 4-1 rout, which capped the best-of-seven series and handed Detroit its second consecutive Stanley Cup championship. "It's hard to explain. It's kind of an empty feeling in your stomach."

Few will feel the hollowness as much as Hunter, the Capitals longtime captain, who has waited longest among the Capitals to get to this moment and, given the years and miles on his body, likely will have few more chances.

No one has played more postseason games in a Capitals uniform; Hunter is tied with Kelly Miller at 100. And few have worn it more proudly and defiantly.

For Capitals fans and players alike, there are images to treasure from this season, which exceeded even optimists' wildest expectations.

Sergei Gonchar said he will remember the throng of Capitals fans who met the team in the wee hours of the morning at their training rink after flying back from Buffalo, having clinched their first NHL Eastern Conference finals.

Others will fix on an image from earlier that night: of Hunter hoisting the gleaming silver Prince of Wales trophy. Last night, Hunter took little solace in having gotten that far, thinking instead about Lord Stanley's more glorious chalice, which the victorious Red Wings passed around on the ice.

Hunter was among the last players to emerge from the showers and players' lounge. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and his hands were thrust into his pockets in dejected fashion as he answered nearly every question with the word "disappointment."

Capitals Coach Ron Wilson couldn't avoid the sentiment, either. "I'm disappointed we lost four straight," Wilson said. "A lot of good teams have lost four straight — including Detroit. They seemed to beat us in every way, and they knew what to do."

Trailing 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Capitals entered last night's game with an air of stubborn resolve. Their fans matched them, decorating MCI Center with such defiant banners as, "Not in our House," and "Believe in 1942!' — a reference to that year's Toronto Maple Leafs, the last team to claw back from a 3-0 deficit to win the Cup.

Hunter, center on the Capitals' fourth line, started the game. It didn't take the Red Wings long to assert their dominance, with Doug Brown scoring about halfway through the first period. Their lead grew to 2-0 in the second period, and the Capitals found themselves fighting not just a superior, well-orchestrated Red Wings offense but their own frustration.

The Capitals opened the third period in impossible arrears — trailing 3-1 and down a man, a result of a penalty with only seconds left in the previous period. It took all of 1 minute 32 seconds for the Red Wings to strike again for their final margin, 4-1.

Said Wilson: "When it starts to slip away, it slips away fast. We had three one-goal games. We were so close to realizing a dream, but I'm proud of what we did."

In the locker room afterward, Hunter struggled to find anything resembling solace. "To get to the finals and lose is a big disappointment," he said. "It didn't work out. They beat us."

He paused for a moment. "They really buried us."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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