Schoenfield's believers Cap Penguins' ouster

April 28, 1994|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Score one for the power of positive thinking.

Ever since being coaxed away from a cushy television job and back into coaching three months ago, Jim Schoenfeld has preached to his Washington Capitals that they're a lot better team than they give themselves credit for.

Some believed him right from the start. Any straggling non-believers joined the encounter group last night as the Caps were completing the destruction of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

The elimination of the Pens, winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups, was completed with a 6-3 victory in Game 6. Actually, the series wasn't that close.

As Pitt coach Ed Johnston said: "You have to be a pretty good hockey team to hold our club to an average of two goals per game."

Heck, and that's with the Capitals not knowing from one minute to the next who would be playing defense for them.

Either all the praise heaped upon Pittsburgh the last dozen days was so much soft soap or the Capitals just may be better than even Schoenfeld thinks. They figure to find out beginning Sunday when they start a best-of-seven with the Rangers in New York. The Broadway Blues have been the best in the league all season and warmed up by embarrassing the cross-town rival Islanders in four straight whacks.

The thing about the Caps' triumph wasn't as much the solid and consistent performance from the opening minute of the first game, a win on the road, as it was the fact that the team seemed to thrive on adversity.

Players who normally would have been told to go take a seat in the stands once the game starts were pressed into service and performed not adequately but sometimes spectacularly. Kid goalie Byron Dafoe, for instance, started as many games in the series (two) as he did during the regular season and there was very little dropoff from regular Don Beaupre, who finished with a 4-0 record and a shutout.

While Beaupre was making perhaps 25 key stops over the course of the six games, the teammate joining him as unofficial co-MVP of the series was Dave Poulin. Guys 35 years old and subject to serious injuries in two of the past three seasons aren't supposed to perform like they just came down from a higher league.

"When I decided to sign with Washington [as a free agent] last August, I was looking for a place where I might be able to make a mark. And marks are made in the playoffs," he said. "All my years in Philadelphia and Boston, I thought Washington could do better."

Once Dale Hunter went down with a hip flexor injury early, Poulin drew the assignment of dogging Mario Lemieux, generally regarded as the greatest player in the world. "What made a fabulous job on Mario by Dave even better," said Schoenfeld, "is he didn't take penalties. He didn't clutch, grab and hold."

Many times, he went against Lemieux head up and won the battle. On the goal that gave the Caps breathing room midway through the second period last night, Poulin and Kelly Miller swiped the puck from Mario, Poulin flipped it into the offensive zone to Michal Pivonka and headed for the net.

"I knew I'd get it back when I got to the goal. Michal's a good passer," said Poulin. He was there, so was the puck and voila, goal!

The Caps rushed out to a three-goal lead in the first 10 minutes and it appeared this one was going to be easy. Then, in the space of a couple of minutes, the Penguins had a goal, a 5-on-3 advantage for 90 seconds, 3 1/2 more minutes of power play and Washington's captain Kevin Hatcher was excused for the evening with a game misconduct for a high-sticking incident. The Pens cashed the 5-on-3.

"We were extremely upbeat and positive after the first period even though we led by only a goal," said Poulin. "The feeling was, we just went through 10 minutes of penalty killing and lost a heckuva player, what else can they do to us? Let's keep playing and having fun."

Poulin continued: "Ever since I got here all I've heard is playoffs."

And a lot of it is negative, the Caps winning just six of 17 series, blowing a couple of 3-to-1 leads, being eliminated in the first round in six of 11 tries, including the last two years, etc.

"Now we have a positive to throw into that mix, because that a heckuva team we beat," he said.

The Rangers are better, though.

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