BUFFALO, N.Y. — The ghosts of seasons past are gone. Nobody can call the Washington Capitals chokers any more. For the first time in their 24-year history, they're in the Stanley Cup finals.
Joe Juneau's goal 6:24 into overtime lifted the Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night, wrapping up the Eastern Conference finals in six games.
"Everybody wants to be a hero in a game like this," Juneau said. "I really believed our line was going to end up scoring the winning goal."
He couldn't have been more right.
Brian Bellows set up the winner when he swept around Darryl Shannon and tried stuffing the puck past Dominik Hasek. Juneau eventually grabbed the loose puck and sent it under Hasek's glove.
Immediately after the goal light went on and referee Don Koharski signaled the series was over, the Capitals poured off the bench and mobbed Juneau in the biggest celebration in team history.
"I had no idea we scored until the guys jumped off the bench," said Bellows, a former Mighty Duck who played most of the season in Germany before being signed by the Capitals in March. "It was just silence. I figured it was either a goal or a brawl, and I didn't expect a brawl."
Washington's Peter Bondra sent the game into overtime when he redirected Andrei Nikolishin's cross-ice pass past Hasek with 5:59 remaining in the third period and the Capitals on the power play.
The Capitals, who have won seven of their last eight road games, will play the winner of the Detroit-Dallas series for the Stanley Cup starting next week. The Red Wings lead the Western Conference series, 3-2, with Game 6 set for tonight in Detroit.
With the victory, the Capitals erased any doubts about whether they would blow a 3-1 series lead for the fourth time in 11 years. Two of their previous series losses in that situation came against Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the decade.
Buffalo was looking to do it again after winning Game 5, but Washington bounced back in Game 6.
"When they blew 3-1 leads in the past, the other team always had Mario Lemieux," said Capital Coach Ron Wilson, in his first year with Washington after spending the previous four with the Ducks. "There was no Mario Lemieux in these playoffs."
For Dale Hunter, it marked the first time in his 18-year career that he has reached the Stanley Cup. He reached the conference finals three times, but his teams were swept each time.
"It's been a long time coming," Hunter said. "Having a chance to win the Stanley Cup is an unbelievable feeling."
Paul Kruse and Michael Peca scored for the Sabres, who were looking for their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals since 1975. Esa Tikkanen scored the other goal for the Capitals, who won three of their four games over Buffalo in overtime.
Buffalo had two good chances in the extra period, but Capital goaltender Olaf Kolzig saved them as he had most of the game. He made a toe save on Jason Woolley early in overtime and stopped Vaclav Varada on a breakaway.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," Sabres' first-year Coach Lindy Ruff said. "We had our opportunities in overtime, but we had a turnover in the neutral zone. But I'm extremely proud of these guys."