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 Capitals Section
 NHL Section

  From Clowns to Nearing NHL Crown
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, June 5, 1998; Page C1

Capitals celebrate overtime win with Prince of Wales Trophy. (Charles Agel/AP)
BUFFALO — Yvon Labre, an original Washington Capital, likes to tell a famous story about the franchise's first season. The team only won eight games that year — it's still a record low in the NHL — and got its lone road victory in California in their fifth-to-last game. That night, Labre's teammate, Tommy Williams, grabbed a garbage can in the visitor's dressing room and inscribed his name upon it, as did many of his teammates. Then the players hoisted the can above their heads and paraded it around the locker room as if it were the Stanley Cup itself.

That was the first — and, until Thursday night, only — trophy parade in Capitals' history. Twenty-four long years later, the franchise finally held a real one here at Marine Midland Arena. Dale Hunter, an 18-year veteran, was the one lofting the hardware. His teammates were howling in celebration. And though it wasn't the Stanley Cup — the Capitals aren't there yet — it was the grandest moment in this team's history. The Capitals are the Eastern Conference champions. They now own the Prince of Wales trophy and, at long last, they are headed to the Stanley Cup.

"We've had some hard times," Hunter said, shaking his head. "I've been there for the hard times. And you've gotta appreciate the good times. This is a good time — right here, right now."

The Capitals did not do this the easy way, and perhaps that is fitting. They had the chance to win this best-of-seven series against Buffalo at MCI Center Tuesday night, and got beaten by the brilliant goaltending of Dominik Hasek. Thursday night, Esa Tikkanen had to bring the Capitals back from a 1-0 deficit, then Peter Bondra had to save them from a 2-1 hole, then Olaf Kolzig had to hold them together in overtime long enough for Joe Juneau to put the puck past Hasek one last time.

Hearts started and stopped on the Capitals' bench so many times this evening, that, for a moment, Brian Bellows didn't know what to think when he heard his team erupt and the rest of the building go silent at that fateful overtime moment. He was on the ice with Juneau, who threw up his arms in celebration. Kolzig — who has been the Capitals' most valuable player this postseason — was racing down from the other net to join his teammates. And on the bench, Coach Ron Wilson was smiling so wide that the whole building could see his wad of chewing gum.

"Fate seems to be on this team's side," said Bellows, who only joined the team two months ago, but has received a crash course in Capitals history. "I think to get this far, it has a lot to do with how guys feel about each other and how we've pulled together. And that includes management."

In the next round, the Capitals will face either the defending Stanley Cup champion in Detroit or the team — Dallas — that won the President's Trophy for best regular season record. It's a daunting task either way. But for the Capitals, it's all gravy from here. They've already done more than anyone could have expected. Last summer, Wilson and new General Manager George McPhee arrived in town faced with the task of turning around a club that had just failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons. Together, they've given Washington something barely short of a miracle, and it's not even over yet.

"I was really confident tonight," McPhee said. "I really felt like we were going to win. I don't know how to explain it. I just had a feeling."

McPhee did his best to step into the background on this night and leave the spotlight to his players. As the whoops came from the shower room, and the beers were handed out, and the players grabbed each other for hugs, McPhee went into a small office and called team owner Abe Pollin to offer his congratulations. Then he stood on the sidelines and merely watched his players celebrate.

The center of attention, of course, was the trophy, which the team propped on a folding chair near the wall in the dressing room that held the now-famous Stanley Cup clipboard. And with the number on the clipboard now at a magical four — that's four wins away from a Cup celebration — players took turns hoisting the trophy, their grins as bright as the silver in their arms.

"A lot of the older guys — Adam Oates, myself, we've played a long time to reach this point in the playoffs," said veteran Phil Housley, who has played 16 NHL seasons, the first eight of them here in Buffalo. "It just feels unbelievable. I thought we played a great game in Game 5, but we didn't win it because of Dominik. This time was finally our time."

Like all the Capitals, Housley wanted this moment to have come two nights before, when they were in their own building and had a room full of fans with whom to share the moment. They wanted to skate it around the building, waving to all the different sections of MCI Center, the moment a public celebration for all of Washington.

Instead, Hunter accepted the trophy at center ice in front of a stunned Buffalo crowd, then handed it over to a teammate ("It was heavy!" he explained later), as the team took it into the privacy of the visitor's dressing room. There, the players celebrated the way Labre and his teammates had 24 long years ago-laughing and hollering and reveling in the moment that had seemed so long in coming. And now, these Capitals have a shot at the celebration that Labre could only pantomime. The Stanley Cup. Who would have thought?

"This team has worked so hard and deserves so much and so does this franchise," Labre said on Tuesday night, when he attended the game at MCI Center. "It's been an incredible ride. Hopefully, now it will end on June 22nd with a Caps' Stanley Cup parade in D.C. Then, we can finally get rid of that old garbage can."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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