Hatcher's hitting a hit with fans

April 23, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- A sign in the Washington Capitals locker room says this: To win, you have to have talent and desire -- but desire comes first.

No one has ever doubted that Washington defenseman Kevin Hatcher had the talent. But now, in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Capitals and Penguins, he also appears to have the desire that can make a good player great.

"I've always liked to play a lot of minutes," said Hatcher. "And I'm thriving on it. I'm making good decisions. I'm finishing my checks. These first three games I've been at the top of my game."

He is 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, and while he may be respected elsewhere around the NHL, he has not been a favorite in Washington, where the hockey fans think big defensemen should be mean and hard hitting.

Consider Pittsburgh's Larry Murphy, who played here from 1983 through 1989. He didn't hit opponents hard enough to suit Capitals fans, so to this day, Murphy hears a "Whoop-Whoop" from the stands every time he touches the puck.

But in this series, there are no mean-spirited slights being cast at Hatcher. He has become Washington's Mountain Man.

In three games he has played 36, 34 and 30 minutes.

"The fans always wanted me to use my size more," said Hatcher, who received a standing ovation for one tremendous play Thursday, when he blocked a shot, got the puck and passed it around a Penguin to himself off the boards and then iced it -- all on a single series of plays, while the Caps were a man down.

"I think what they didn't understand, was that I was looked to to be on offense more and to stay out of the penalty box," he said. "But I've been really finishing my checks lately and they enjoy that part of the game and I think that's one of the reasons they've been cheering me. I've noticed a little bit."

With all that ice time, there have been some mistakes, but Hatcher leads the team in shots (13), is tied with five others for the points lead with two assists and is a plus-one.

Hatcher's emergence began when Jim Schoenfeld took over as coach in January. But another piece to the puzzle was the departure of defenseman Al Iafrate, who went to Boston in a trade for Joe Juneau.

Bringing Juneau in strengthened Washington's offense, and getting rid of Iafrate left Hatcher as the lone big man anchoring the back line.

"I think Kevin has grown in his position," said Schoenfeld. "I know, coming into the stretch, he's evolved into a vocal leader. He's recognizing what has to be done and is leading the way to do it. On the ice, he has been unbelievably strong."

Hatcher believes this metamorphoses has been in the works for at least two months and came fully to light when Iafrate left.

"When Al got traded, it put a little more responsibility on myself and Sylvain [Cote] and Calle [Johansson] and Joe Reekie, when he came," Hatcher said. "I think that's when we really started to play really well as a defensive four."

When Iafrate went to Boston, Hatcher found himself thinking less about jumping up on the play and more about setting up on the blue line and denying the opposing team the offensive attack.

"I think I've been playing as well as I have all season since then," said Hatcher, the Capitals' captain. "I'm right there with my best. I think I've played as well, but I don't know if I've ever played any better."

During the first three games of this series, Hatcher and his defensive partners have been standing the Penguins up at the red line, smothering them when they get the puck and basically shutting them down.

It has been an amazing effort, not just by Hatcher, but by everyone. When Don Beaupre shut out Pittsburgh, 2-0, Thursday, it was the first time in 94 playoff games that the Penguins had failed to score.

It was also the first time Pittsburgh had been shut out this season.

Hatcher will see another 30-plus minutes tonight, in Game 4. His iron-man antics have not been missed by the Penguins.

"We hit and forechecked him," said Pittsburgh winger Kevin Stevens. "He wasn't tired in the two games in Pittsburgh, but we worked him over a bit and I think he's starting to get a little tired."

But Schoenfeld said yesterday, "Kevin is just getting warmed up."

Hatcher said he is being smart about this extended playing time.

"I don't want to get caught out there for two minutes," he said. "That could kill you, that could take you out for 10 minutes.

"I keep the shifts short -- 45 seconds to a minute, then there is less chance of getting to that point of feeling so fatigued."

And he isn't skating on the days between games, either, saving his energy for when it counts.

"I'm a happy guy," said Hatcher. "We're up 2-1 in the series. I think everyone is contributing and we're a real solid team right now. I think my wife would say, I'm a funner guy to be around."

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