For veteran Caps, Cup has extra lure Hunter, teammates know chances rare

June 08, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When the Detroit Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup Finals four years ago, it was left to veteran center Steve Yzerman to explain to the team's young Russian star, Sergei Fedorov, who had grown up focused on European and world championships, just what it would mean to win the Cup.

Yesterday, as the Washington Capitals took part in their last practice at home before heading to Detroit, where they will begin play in their first Stanley Cup championship series tomorrow, no such explanations were necessary.

"I'd have to be the dumbest guy in the locker room not to know what the Stanley Cup means," said Russian-born Peter Bondra, the Capitals' star right wing. "It's what we suffer for; it's what we put our body through all this wear and tear for every night, every year."

Every few years, an unexpected team shows up in the Stanley Cup Finals. One year, it was the Los Angeles Kings; one year, the Florida Panthers; another time, the Vancouver Canucks. Before them, the Minnesota North Stars made the trip.

All of those surprise participants were underdogs, and so are the Capitals. But after practice yesterday, Washington coach Ron Wilson said his team is different.

"The only problem with those other teams was that they were all young," Wilson said. "They were all full of young players who were just so excited about getting that far that they didn't win.

"This team -- this team is full of guys who have been playing a long time and never gotten close before. For a guy like Dale Hunter, he's played 18 years and this is possibly his first and last kick at the can.

"He gives our few young guys, like Richard Zednik, a 22-year-old getting to the Cup Finals in his rookie year, perspective. You know, Detroit has won only one Cup in 43 years."

The series against the Red Wings will begin tomorrow night at 8 at Joe Louis Arena.

In the face of a fan and media crush, the Capitals are trying to maintain their perspective. It is the franchise's first trip to the Cup Finals in its 24-year history. So how does it prepare?

Yesterday, with the stands packed at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, the Caps were listening to their four teammates who have been there before and won: Esa Tikkanen, Brian Bellows, Chris Simon and Bill Ranford. And, too, to Mark Tinordi, who made the Finals with Minnesota in 1991, but lost.

"In some ways, going to the Finals is like going into any other game in any other series," said Tinordi, the Caps' big defenseman. "It's the same game, the same team, the same team we've played before. You're not going to prepare any differently.

"But you've got to learn how to handle all the distractions. That's the advantage of having been there before. You have all these people, everyone around you telling you you're great. But you have to stay focused. You still have to play the game. You've just got to stay grounded and remember it's just a hockey game."

But for these players, what a series of games. As Wilson said, Hunter has waited 18 years. Phil Housley, the point man on the Capitals' power play, has waited 16. Adam Oates, who anchors the team's top line, has waited 13, and so on.

None of the Caps, however, seems so wrapped up in the moment that he's forgetting what the team has to do. Washington has to beat the Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and almost no one outside its locker room gives the Caps much of a chance.

Even Wilson says, if you look at the series logically, Detroit has all the edges.

The Red Wings have the Cup, the ranking, the speed, strong play up the middle and even a sharp goalie in Chris Osgood to counter Olie Kolzig, who has been the best goalie in the postseason so far.

"We realize this is going to be a heck of a lot tougher than any other series we've played," said Wilson.

But Detroit has also lost six games through the playoffs. So Wilson has told his team: "You can beat Detroit if you play well and don't make mistakes."

The Capitals have shown they know how to do both.

"I don't know what more we have to prove," Bondra said. "We've learned what it takes to win a fourth game. It's all about confidence. We believe we can win. We're not just going to the Stanley Cup Finals to show up. We believe we can win it."

It's history

The Washington Capitals were 0-2-0 against the Detroit Red Wings during the regular season, but they didn't have a winning record against any of the teams they beat earlier in the playoffs (Boston, 1-2-1; Ottawa, 1-3-0; Buffalo, 2-2-0). How they fared vs. the Red Wings:

Jan. 11, at Detroit, 2-0

What happened: Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov scored third-period goals, the last into an empty net with 19.3 seconds remaining to lift the Red Wings.

Inside info: The Caps were playing their fourth game in six days.

Quotable: "It was my best game in a while, and all I have to show for it is a loss." -- Caps goalie Olie Kolzig, who faced 38 shots.

Feb. 1, at MCI Center, 4-2

What happened: Aaron Ward and Brendan Shanahan scored 1: 04 apart early in the third period, erasing a Washington lead.

Inside info: The loss ended a Caps unbeaten streak at seven.

Quotable: "It was like bumper pool out there -- it wasn't hockey. All six goals weren't exactly pretty." -- Kolzig, who had 26 saves.

Stanley Cup Finals

Washington vs. Detroit

Tomorrow At Detroit 8 p.m.

Thursday At Detroit 8 p.m.

Saturday At Wash. 8 p.m.

June 16 At Wash. 8 p.m.

June 18 At Detroit 8 p.m.*

June 20 At Wash. 8 p.m.*

June 23 At Detroit 8 p.m.*

* If necessary

TV: Games 1, 5 and 7 on Fox; games 2, 3, 4 and 6 on ESPN

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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