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  Capitals' Cup Empty, But Lessons Learned
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998; Page B10

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NHL record books will show that the Washington Capitals came away with nothing in their first Stanley Cup finals, having been swept in four games by the defending champion Detroit Red Wings.

The series was over in eight quick days, skidding to a halt on the Capitals' home ice, MCI Center, where they lost, 4-1, on Tuesday night.

But for all its brevity, the Capitals' Stanley Cup run taught the team more about itself and what it takes to win a championship than the seven-month, 82-game regular season that preceded it.

"I've read somewhere we should be embarrassed by what's happened," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said after Tuesday's game. "How can you be embarrassed or say that we're losers? There's 24 other teams that would have died to get swept four straight games in the Stanley Cup finals."

Against the Red Wings, the Capitals learned that no matter how great their goaltender (and Olaf Kolzig was a rock throughout), the rest of the team must play tough and unrelenting on both ends of the ice. Defensive lapses and miscues cost the Capitals throughout the series, especially during the pivotal Game 2 at Detroit, when the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman scored short-handed in the third period to pare the Capitals' lead to 3-2 and swing the momentum of the game — and the series itself-Detroit's way.

The Capitals also learned they must convert every scoring opportunity in the Stanley Cup finals because at this level, as the Red Wings steadily reminded them, teams get precious few chances. How many times this summer will Capitals fans and players alike flash back to Esa Tikkanen charging toward the net in Game 2, masterfully faking his defender but missing the open-net shot that would have put his team up 5-3?

As fourth-place finishers in hockey's Eastern Conference, the Capitals were unlikely Stanley Cup finalists. But players were on top of the world as they prepared for Game 1 against Detroit, knowing they had beaten the world's best goaltender, the Buffalo Sabres' Dominik Hasek, for a privilege that had been 24 years in the making.

Ousting Hasek's Sabres four games to two convinced the Capitals they deserved to contend for the Stanley Cup. After Detroit scored two goals in the opening period of Game 1 at Detroit's raucous Joe Louis Arena, Richard Zednik's goal in the second period averted a shutout. After the 2-1 loss, the Capitals spoke bullishly about the confidence they took from the one-point defeat. The Red Wings, by contrast, denigrated their own play and vowed to do better. It was a prophetic signal about just how much better the Capitals would have to play to stay with Detroit.

The Capitals opened Game 2 more sharply and entered the third period with a 3-1 lead. Yzerman's short-handed goal was a blow, but when Capitals center Joe Juneau answered to put Washington up 4-2, it seemed the Capitals were in control again.

Sloppy coverage enabled the Red Wings to pull within 4-3, and Tikkanen answered with his breakaway to the net. But the sure goal sailed wide. Helped by a succession of defensive lapses, Detroit forced overtime. Fatigue made the difference in the extra minutes, as Detroit's Kris Draper connected for a 5-4 victory on the Red Wings' 60th shot.

"The key was the second game," said winger Peter Bondra. "That was probably what took the confidence from us."

The Capitals came home seeking a supportive crowd and a change of fortune. But Game 3 got off to the worst possible start, with Detroit scoring in the first 35 seconds, sapping the crowd's energy and the Capitals' resolve. It was the third consecutive one-goal loss (2-1).

The Capitals couldn't reverse the scoring trend in Game 4 as Detroit, inspired by the presence of injured teammate Vladimir Konstantinov, bolted to a 2-0 lead. Bondra had a few scoring opportunities but couldn't convert. With 18 minutes left, the Capitals faced a 4-1 deficit they simply couldn't close.

Left wing Brian Bellows, the only Capital to score more than one goal in the finals, said Detroit's depth and cohesion made the difference. "Their superstars played rugged; they played tough. Yzerman, [Sergei] Fedorov-they play within a system. They don't think they're above anyone else. They have such a pride in the way they play that it would be unfathomable for one of the guys to play his own way and not give 100 percent. I think they all feel responsible to each other, and that's a big difference."

Now, the Capitals have a two-month hiatus to sort through the lessons of their first Stanley Cup finals, come to terms with the loss and craft a plan for taking that next step toward becoming a championshp team.

Said center Adam Oates, 35, a 13-year NHL veteran: "You learn as you get older: It passes by quickly."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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