In this series, Caps try to avoid rerun

April 25, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- In the past, the Washington Capitals were as likely to break your heart as they were to make your spirit soar.

And here they are again -- one victory from ousting the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

"They're one game from elimination," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "I guess you can call that desperate. But we're desperate, too. We want to win, too."

The Capitals have been here before. Twice, in fact.

In 1992, they were up 3-1 against Pittsburgh, only to lose three straight to drop the series, 4-3, and the Penguins played on to their second Stanley Cup.

The same thing happened against the New York Islanders in 1987, though with a more painful twist -- the Capitals lost Game 7 in a fourth overtime.

There are signs that these Capitals aren't the Capitals of old.

Since these playoffs started, they've demonstrated a consistency not seen previously this season and a strong commitment to defense.

"I sense a team confidence and belief in their ability that wasn't there before," Washington general manager David Poile said. "There is an overall belief that they can win."

It is an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to measure. And yet, there are hints that Poile is not just speaking as a biased general manager.

"The numbers are the same as they were [in 1992], 3-1," said Washington center Michal Pivonka. "We felt great then, too. But the way we've won these games, the discipline, the solid hockey, the goaltending, with Donnie [Beaupre] and Byron [Dafoe], holding them to one goal in two games, that's different."

And the team has continued to play well without defenseman Sylvain Cote, who missed two games, and center Dale Hunter, who also has missed two.

"The year we were in the conference finals [1990], [Kevin] Hatcher and [Dino] Ciccarelli got hurt, and when that happened, the series was over," Poile recalled. "Another year, against New Jersey, [Rod] Langway got hurt, and again it was over.

"The point is, that with two of our better players out, we continued to play at a high level with whomever we used. That's a complete change from the past."

And there is another apparent change for the Capitals, even from as recently as a year ago.

At this time last year, it was the Capitals who were down to the New York Islanders 3-1. Their leading goal scorer, Peter Bondra, who had 37 in the regular season, hadn't scored and wouldn't before the series ended.

Neither would Pivonka or Hatcher, who contributed 55 goals during the season. And the Caps found themselves struggling to find any kind of continuity.

"This time, we're more of a team. Everyone is contributing," said Pivonka, who has two goals, two assists to go with his sound defensive contributions. "Dave Poulin, Don Beaupre, Joe Reekie. Guys are standing up. You can't look at this team and say one guy has to do it or one guy will do it. We're all doing it."

In fact, there are seven Caps who have scored goals and eight who have assists. And everybody is playing an in-your-face style of defense.

"It's 60 minutes of hard hockey," said Bondra. "You get hit, you give a hit. Everybody can hit."

Poile gives much of the credit for all of this to Schoenfeld, who arrived Jan. 27 and replaced Terry Murray.

"The first thing he said when he got here was, 'I've got the 20 best players in the NHL,' " Poile said. "I think that was a great statement. It wasn't, 'If only we could get this or that.' It was, 'These are the 20 best.'

"I think that had impact, and I think our leadership this year has evolved. It's taken a while, but the transition has been made from Rod Langway to Kevin Hatcher, and it's even stronger with Dale Hunter, Kelly Miller and the additions of Dave Poulin and Craig Berube."

"The best thing we've got going for our team is our unity," Schoenfeld said. "Pittsburgh has great individual players, but we can beat great individuals with a strong team commitment."

And it has been a comprehensive team effort that has brought the Capitals to tonight's game and a chance to wrap up this series in five games.

"When you walk into the room before the game, you don't feel any tension," said Caps center Joe Juneau about Washington's locker room. "The young guys, the older guys, you look around and you see all these guys in this room, and you know they're all going to work for you. It isn't one guy here, it's all of us, and everyone is thinking the same way."

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