Cinderella Capitals seeking slight improvement After coaching team to Cup Finals, Wilson dreaming of title run

October 08, 1998|By Helene Elliott | Helene Elliott,THE SPORTING NEWS

Washington coach Ron Wilson claims he dreamed last spring that the Capitals would open this season against Anaheim -- the team that fired him after an impressive playoff run in 1997 -- and that before the game, the Capitals would hoist the Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Washington's MCI Center.

"I got the schedule, and I couldn't believe it, because we're actually opening against Anaheim," Wilson says of Saturday's season opener. "Except the banner we're raising is the Eastern Conference championship, not the Stanley Cup banner."

Difficult to believe? Maybe. It's almost too good an anecdote to be true.

But it was even more difficult to believe that the Capitals, with a new coach and first-year general manager George McPhee, went from missing the playoffs to their first Stanley Cup berth in the franchise's 24-year history. And still more incredible that they didn't squander the 3-1 series leads they held against Boston, Ottawa and Buffalo in each round, as they had in previous years.

"Those were three huge tests," Wilson says. "We had this history, and even though it had nothing to do with myself and George McPhee, it was palpable. Everybody tried to ignore it, but I was going to be the one who confronted it. I talked to the team about that, saying that instead of fearing it we were going to use this as a positive."

Wilson was positively petrified history would repeat itself and his Cinderella team would revert to being a pumpkin. "When we got to 3-1 against the Bruins and you think you've got the situation under control, we stunk the joint out [a 4-0 loss], and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," he says. "It seemed every game, we had a 2-0 lead, and in the third period, the Bruins threw everything at us. [Goaltender] Olie Kolzig was fantastic. Olie Kolzig is the one who buried all the ghosts here.

"We won that series, 4-2, and then we find ourselves in the same boat the next series, and we hear the same stuff. In the Finals, there wasn't anything we could do. The Red Wings were so pumped up. Going into that series, I thought we would win the Stanley Cup. After the first period of the first game, I didn't believe we'd do it."

His premonition proved true, and the Capitals were swept. Still, losing to the Red Wings -- the two-time defending champions entering this season -- was no shame. And it didn't make the Capitals' season any less a success.

Kolzig's emergence as a top-notch goalie helped immensely, as did the team's depth in the face of 480 man-games lost to injuries.

However, Wilson's contributions can't be overlooked, especially his ability to guide his team through the maze of bad memories. The Capitals are poised to build a tradition of success, and it's Wilson who coaxed, cajoled and prodded them there.

What can Wilson do for an encore? There's only one thing you can do that's better, and that's win the Stanley Cup, Wilson says.

But it won't be easy. The Capitals added depth on defense by signing free agent Dmitri Mironov, who played for Wilson in Anaheim, and Wilson is hoping for bigger contributions from youngsters such as left winger Richard Zednik and center Jan Bulis.

"Look at our team. Olie Kolzig, he's the real deal," Wilson says. "We've got a defense that's not the best but in the top five. We've got the best goal scorer in the league the last five years in Peter Bondra, and we have a nice chemistry with some of the younger guys.

"With the team we have, we've got to do it this year or next year. We're a little older team. Adam Oates is 36, and this could be Dale Hunter's last year. Mark Tinordi [32] has a lot of miles on him, too. We want to be consistent and put ourselves in position to do what we did last year."

Then, maybe, the other part of Wilson's dream -- hoisting a Stanley Cup banner at the MCI Center -- will come true.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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