Stanley Cup 1998
Navigation Bar

 Stanley Cup '98
 Fan's Guide
 Red Wings
Related Items
 Haunted by bizarre games in the playoffs, the Caps once again played their "longest game."
 The series had a familar ring for the Caps: build a big series lead but fail to advance.
 The Caps were left wondering about the play of Jim Carey.
 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  It's a Gag We've Heard Before
By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 30, 1996; Page C01

Tony Kornheiser

Let's be honest. Both of us know what I have to do here.

You've come to this page to see me write that the Capitals are — well, you know what they are.

And I have to write it, because I write it every year.

Because they do it every year.

Same old story: What's red, white and blue, and plays golf in April?

Excuse me, what's bronze, white and blue, and plays golf in April?

The Washington Capitals.

Choking Dogs.

I wrote it in small type, because this wasn't even one of their big chokes. As a historian of their gags, I don't put this in their top five. It doesn't rank with the 1987 foldo against the Islanders, when they lost the last three games — and Game 7 in four overtimes at home! Nor does it rank with the choke jobs against Pittsburgh in 1992 and '95, when they held 3-1 leads. I don't think it was as big a choke as the one in 1985, when a Caps team that had 101 points in the regular season blew a 2-0 lead, and lost three straight to the Islanders under the old, best-of-five format. I'll argue this wasn't as big a choke as in 1988, when the Caps lost three straight home games to the Devils.

But this was more than a hiccup.

I know all about the injuries. I know all about how Pittsburgh was a better team.

But the Capitals don't get off the hook simply because they lost to a better team — not when they put themselves in position to win. Individually, any one game may not have been choked, but collectively . . . .

The Caps were ahead 2-love in games and coming home! They had three of the next four at home, and they lost them all. In the critical Game 4, the game the Capitals absolutely, positively had to win to stay in the series, because they couldn't possibly depend on a team as good as Pittsburgh to lose three straight at home — the critical Game 4, the game the Capitals HAD to win to dispel the doubts, including their own — in that critical Game 4, the Caps held a two-goal lead, and lost slowly, agonizingly, in four overtimes.

Only a homer would say that's not choking.

You'd say it about Montreal, up 2-love, coming home.

It's the same with the Capitals. They had momentum, but they couldn't close. They couldn't push the puck past a second-string goalie. It's not what they gave up, it's what they didn't get.

Where the heck are the goal scorers?

(On other teams is where, right, David?)

Pittsburgh is allergic to defense. The Capitals outshot the Penguins 249-206. Shots, they got. If they had any real scorers besides Bondra, they would have won the thing.

Why can't the general manager bring in some scorers?

The Caps are gritty out of necessity. It's a virtue to work hard, but the Capitals have to out-work the other teams because management hasn't assembled enough gifted players to out-skate other teams.

You know, calling the Caps "Choking Dogs" used to be funny. But it isn't any more. Because it has been happening for 12 years. In nine of their past 12 playoffs the Capitals have either frittered away a substantial playoff lead or lost to a team they finished above in the regular season.

And it's not because of the Capitals' goalies.

It's because the Caps make everybody else's goalie look like Jacques Plante.

The coach of this team, Jim Schoenfeld, did a terrific job. He was outmanned and outgunned by Pittsburgh from here to the Pennsylvania border, yet he prepared his team so well they were able to win the first two games and stay competitive in two others. Considering all the injuries, Schoenfeld was like an Indy 500 mechanic who has to patch tires with bubble gum and spit. He's a keeper.

The Capitals' problem isn't the players they have — they tried their best — it's the players they don't have. The Messiers, the Lindroses, the Lemieuxs. The ones that can win Cups.

The GM brings in good players, but never great ones. The Caps have been treading water for years now; it appears it's getting harder and harder to bob above the surface.

The fans know this. They see the owner's money going to Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, and they question whether there's any left for comparable hockey talent. It doesn't look that way. It doesn't look as if the owner has made the same commitment to the Capitals as he has to the Bullets. (If he has, then what's the GM doing? Every year around the trading deadline, goal scorers start falling out of trees. How can the Caps be the only team that doesn't catch one?)

What it looks like is that the owner's happy to simply make the playoffs — first round and out is okay. That's why almost nobody in town believes in the Caps. That's why almost nobody in town thought the Capitals would actually win the series against Pittsburgh, even when they were ahead 2-0. Capitals fans have been conditioned by past failures to expect the worst, to expect: choking dogs.

The truth is that the blame lies with management more than with the players. The Capitals' organization has failed to improve this team. They fiddle while Rome burns.

Yesterday I was talking to a former Caps player, who told me of the torture of Game 4. He spoke of the crushing bad luck that always befalls the Capitals, from Pat LaFontaine to Petr Nedved. He spoke of Joe Juneau getting the first playoff overtime penalty shot in the whole history of the NHL, how Juneau had the series on his stick, and how, incomprehensibly, the puck began bouncing around like a Spaldeen and Juneau couldn't get off a shot. Bad luck. The former Cap looked at me with dark eyes, and asked plaintively, "Why can't they ever get some good luck?"

Good teams make their own good luck.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Stanley Cup Front | History | Gallery | Fan's Guide | Red Wings
Navigation Bar
yellow pages