Benching puts Iafrate back on track Capital makes run for Norris Trophy

December 09, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

It has been so long, Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray has trouble remembering it. But Al Iafrate remembers Oct. 31 clearly. That's the day Murray benched him.

"I hadn't been benched in four years," Iafrate said, recalling the game he sat out in Edmonton. "It's part of the game. You can't let it eat at you, but, yeah, it got my attention. I've been playing better ever since."

Better is an understatement.

He has seven goals and nine assists in the past seven games, and his defense has been more solid. Iafrate will try to keep it going tonight, when the Caps face the New Jersey Devils at the Meadowlands Arena.

He has become a candidate for the Norris Trophy that goes to the NHL's best defenseman. Even Murray says it is not an unreasonable possibility.

"I don't think it's an overstatement at all," said Murray. "Al has all the physical abilities and talents that can lead him to be that [Norris Trophy winner] -- if he keeps playing."

For Iafrate and the Caps, that is the key. To maintain the pace, or surpass it. Murray says that's what becoming a superlative player is about: applying talents and meeting the challenge.

"If you want to be the best, you have to step outside your comfort zone, step over the boundaries and play a little reckless at times," said the coach. "Go out and try to be the best. If you take that approach mentally and apply your talents physically with it, then that's the difference."

Iafrate, 26, sits on a table and brushes the Norris Trophy talk aside. It's not on his agenda. He has only one goal. The same one he has had since he was 5 years old. He wants to win a Stanley Cup.

"The Cup, that's what it's all about for me," he said. "Anything else is a bonus -- 100 points, individual trophies. You want the Cup. When you get old and can't play anymore, you want your kids or your parents to be able to point at it and say, 'My dad' or 'My son' won it all.

"How many opportunities do you get? I've been at this nine years, and I've been to the second round twice. But last year, we had Pittsburgh down 3-1 in games, and that, to me, is the closest I've ever come."

He might have decided to pursue something else. A lot of kids probably would have, given his introduction to the game. When Iafrate was 5, playing his first hockey game, another kid hit him above the left eye with a hockey stick.

"Should have had stitches," he said, pointing to one of several scars. "But Mom didn't want to tell Dad what happened, so she put a Band-Aid over it and said the cat scratched me. . . . To me, growing up in Detroit, hockey seemed like the best game, the most challenging and the most exciting."

Certainly he has made it entertaining, with his breakaway speed, a wicked slap shot and a willingness to slam and be slammed against the boards. Off the ice, he brings a playfulness to the locker room that brightens a relatively quiet team.

"He's unbelievable," said goalie Jim Hrivnak. "Ask him; he'll tell you himself. He has this dueling thing with the sticks on the ice and he sometimes pokes at my face mask at practice. I just smile -- you never know when he's going to go off."

Defenseman Alan May says Iafrate's stars must be perfectly aligned. "His mind and body are in sync," May says. "And when he's like that, he picks up every single guy on the team."

There is no doubt Iafrate thrives on being his own person. While he enjoys the friendship of his teammates, he says off the ice he is something of a loner.

"I enjoy my own company," he said. "I have my own beliefs. I don't believe stuff just because people say it. And I don't change the way I act or what I do just to be accepted.

"I love hockey, motorcycles, fast cars and rock music. I like the rush I get from them. It's hard to find people who like all those things."

He came into the NHL as an 18-year-old who had skipped his senior year in high school to play for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

"I did graduate," Iafrate said. "My senior assignment was to write a year-long report on the Olympic experience."

He joined the Capitals in the middle of the 1990-91 season after asking for a trade after Toronto's hiring of a new coach, Tom Watt. Iafrate said he and Watt didn't hit it off. But he and Murray do. He may have been benched in October, but it wasn't because Murray doesn't like his style. As Murray recalls, it was to get Iafrate back to the imaginative play that had produced a 17-goal, 34-assist season a year ago.

"People have their own ability to be creative," Murray said. "And I want them to be the characters they are. That's what makes a team a team. That's what makes it fun for the fans. I want to let Al be what he is. I can't speak for other coaches, but he certainly can play for me."

Capitals tonight

Opponent: New Jersey Devils

Site: Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, N.J.

Time: 7:35

TV: Channel 20

Radio: WMAL (630 AM)

Outlook: The Capitals are above .500 for the first time since they won their season opener in Toronto and are 7-1-1 in their past nine games. New Jersey is well-rested after Sunday's 7-3 victory over Buffalo and will have the league's second-best goalie, Craig Billington (2.74 GAA) in the net. If the Caps continue to alternate goalies, it will be Jim Hrivnak's turn tonight.

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