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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

Capitals' Season Was Certainly One to Remember

June 21, 1998|TONY KORNHEISER | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — One last time for auld lang syne:

Choking Dogs.

Now let's bury the hated phrase forever. Lock it in a box, seal the box in a vault, drop the vault in the river, let it sleep with the fishes.

You can fault the Washington Capitals for not bringing their A-game to the Stanley Cup final if you want. You can fault them for being swept, for not putting enough pressure on the elegant Detroit Red Wings, for falling behind quickly in every game. But I can't find it in my heart to blast them. After so many years of untimely playoff exits, there was a hockey game in town Tuesday night. The fact that the Caps were still playing a hockey game on June 16 is more important than that they weren't winning it.

And when it was over, when the Red Wings were exulting, and carrying the Stanley Cup all over the ice, there was Ron Wilson--the son and nephew of Red Wings players--watching it all with a melancholy eye. "I'm a hockey fan, and that's something you dream of seeing," Wilson explained. "I want to see the Stanley Cup up close, and dream that next year it's going to be our team holding it above our heads."

Tuesday afternoon, while assessing his team's chances to climb back into the series, Wilson made this commitment: "If we're going to go down four straight, we're going to go down swinging. It'll be a Rocky Graziano thing out there." Wilson thought the Capitals might catch Detroit looking past them and toward chilled champagne. "We might have an edge in that they're emotionally keyed up," Wilson said of the Red Wings. "They've flown their wives in, flown their coaches' wives in, flown their scouts' wives in." (Whew. I hope somebody warned the girlfriends to leave.)

The Caps came out swinging as promised. Unlike the cryogenic start in Game 3, when they had only one shot in the entire first period, the Caps put two on Chris Osgood inside the first minute. But their fury abated, and the Red Wings ended up outshooting the Caps, 14-6, and outscoring them, 1-0.

Detroit's lead grew to 2-0 early in the second period, on a shot from just inside the blue line by Martin Lapointe, a shot Olie Kolzig has stopped about 100 times in a row. Kolzig has been electrifying throughout the playoffs. But you can stand on your head for just so long on a hard surface--and if your teammates don't give you a cushion, eventually your head cracks.

Brian Bellows narrowed it to 2-1. But shortly thereafter the Red Wings got the margin back to two goals again--to add insult to injury on a shot by Washington's favorite whipping boy Larry Murphy. For all intents and purposes the Caps' slim chance at recreating the unprecedented Toronto comeback of 1942 was over. Eighty-nine of the last 90 times a team took a two-goal lead into the third period of a Stanley Cup final round game, that team won. The exception, heaven help us: Our Caps last week in Game 2!

So the Caps were swept. And the number "4," signifying the number of games the Caps needed to win the Stanley Cup, stays frozen on the clipboard in the Caps locker room. As we look back on the series--and we don't have to look back very far; the series was over in about 15 minutes--Game 2 clearly was the turning point. The Caps had a two-goal lead twice in the third period. That game was in the bag the way Dr. Seuss' cat was in the hat. The agony of dropping Game 2, symbolized by the agony of Esa Tikkanen missing an open-net goal that surely would have cinched it, stayed with the Caps long after the game was over.

"That's a game you lose sleep over," Mark Tinordi said.

The difference in the series seems slight. Before the air seeped out of the Caps Tuesday night Detroit won each of the first three games by just a goal. But the Red Wings were discernibly better. They had obvious superior speed. The way they sped around on the ice in their all-red road uniforms the Red Wings looked like fire engines rushing to a four-alarmer. On defense Detroit had an uncanny sense of where the puck was going. There always seemed to be four red shirts around the puck. The Red Wings' defense was so dependable that their goalie only had to be Osgood, he never had to be Os-great.

As all of us puck-heads know, Detroit's defensive system is the "Left Wing Lock." In the Left Wing Lock the left wing assumes a defensive posture, which makes it seem like the Red Wings are playing more defensemen than legally allowed. There is a very technical hockey term that is used to describe what the Left Wing Lock did to the Caps: It "killed" them.

The Capitals said Detroit was clearly the best team they had faced all season. "Their individual players are as good as any in the league," Craig Berube said. "But what's really great about them is that the individuals put the system first and the team first. Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov are used to scoring 50 goals a year. But in this system they sacrifice their own goals to win cups instead. That's what's important."

In the end, what the Caps envied most about the Red Wings--especially after watching the Red Wings beat them in the close games--was Detroit's confidence. "They know how to win," Tinordi said. "They have the experience of winning and knowing what it takes to win."

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