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  For 'Panicking' Caps, Opening-Night Jitters
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 1998; Page C8

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DETROIT, June 9 — Dale Hunter was nervous. Hunter is 37 years old, he's played in the NHL for 18 seasons, and he's seen about all there is to see in this game. Except this. Tonight, Hunter — and the Washington Capitals' — played in their first Stanley Cup final game. And the butterflies were there. "I was nervous," said Hunter, who grinned a little bit when admitting that fact. "I'm out there playing in the final for the first time. I was little nervous — everyone was."

Most of the Capitals have fantasized for a long time about their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals, and tonight's game here at Joe Louis Arena provided all the edgy pregame anxiety, if not the oft-dreamed result. The seasoned Red Wings, who are playing their third Stanley Cup series in four seasons, took advantage of bad two-minute stretch in the first period to take a 2-1 victory.

"I think you are down 2-0 in the first game it is a little overwhelming," Capitals' Coach Ron Wilson said. "It is our first for a lot of people crack at the finals."

Most Capitals had no idea what to expect tonight. Olaf Kolzig waited, in vain, for a laser light show to erupt or a replica of the Stanley Cup to descend from the ceiling, or maybe even an exploding puck to signal the start of the greatest game he's ever played in his lifetime. Twenty-two year old Richard Zednik chattered excitedly with his fellow players. As always, Wilson — also a Stanley Cup rookie-chewed gum.

Hunter and Adam Oates, another veteran player, looked around the dressing room prior to the first period and sensed the players were a little nervous — Wilson used the word "tight" — but, despite the jumping jacks their own stomachs were doing, the young players weren't as on edge as they expected them to be. "Everyone talked," Hunter said. "It was, 'Relax boys, this is where you want to be. Let's go play a hockey game.'"

And for the first 10 minutes, the Capitals didn't seem all that shaken. They had the first good scoring chance, on Detroit goaltender Chris Osgood. The building was rocking, the Red Wings' fans were a blur of red and white, but it all seemed like it was going to be okay.

"I was more nervous before the first game of the playoffs or Game 6 of the series against Buffalo," admitted Kolzig, who seemed a little surprised, himself, by that fact. "This time I went in and just tried to relax. And the fans, the music, it got you into it. This is a great atmosphere. The hockey world is watching."

The Capitals could hardly have picked a more history-laden place to make their Stanley Cup debut than in this city nicknamed "Hockeytown U.S.A." While the Capitals are trying to make history, the Red Wings are merely trying to repeat it, having won the Stanley Cup last June — as well as seven previous times in franchise history. Here this week, Red Wings' fans have been slightly dismissive of the Capitals' chances — they assume the Cup is destined to remain in their city one more year. Still, tickets to tonight's game at "The Joe," as locals refer to this huge gray edifice along the Detroit River, were prized possessions, and the building was packed with fans happy to taunt Kolzig once he let in two first-period goals.

Those two goals, scored in a two-minute span, were a result of inexperience — and panic — finally hitting the Capitals, who all but gave the puck away. And in an interview between periods, Joe Juneau admitted that the Capitals had let the pressure get to them a little.

"We start panicking," Juneau said, "and, you know, breakouts are awful and we start giving the puck away. . . . We have a lot of talent. We just got to believe in each other a little bit more."

Esa Tikkanen, a Stanley Cup veteran, told his teammates to calm down — in English, not his trademark Tikkannese — and tried to share the wisdom of having played in, and won, five previous Stanley Cups. The team tried, but as Tikkanen acknowledged, it wasn't enough.

"I think everyone got their legs back in the second period," Tikkanen said. "But it's not an excuse. We've got to be ready for the first 20 minutes."

And now Tikkanen — as well as Chris Simon, and Brian Bellows, and Bill Ranford, all Capitals who know this kind of pressure — no longer need to explain to their fellow Capitals what it feels like to be in a Stanley Cup final. Now they know. And now the uphill battle begins.

"They've been in the Stanley Cup before," Kolzig said of the Red Wings. "So they know what it takes. They capitalized on [our] mistakes. Now, we have to learn from our mistakes and be ready to go on in Game 2."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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