WASHINGTON -- It was the kind of game that Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig has thought about more than once through his years in Washington. The kind in which his team outplays the other for hours, only to allow the opposition to score a late goal and break the Caps' hearts.
Last night was that kind of game.
Washington controlled every little movement. Dominated every aspect of the game -- even outshooting the opposition by double figures. But the Caps could not break the will of the Buffalo Sabres' amazing goalie, Dominik Hasek.
Hasek made 34 saves to give his team a chance for victory in Game 5. And with 4: 26 to play, former Capital Jason Woolley scored to lift the Sabres to a 2-1 victory and force the Eastern Conference finals back to Buffalo for Game 6 tomorrow night.
It was an impressive turnaround for a team and a goalie that seemed to be down for the count after an atrocious Game 4 in Buffalo.
"We pulled off some of the stuff that Washington has been pulling off throughout the playoffs," said Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff. "We looked at their game plan and tried to copy it."
Ruff may have been joking, but it didn't look like it on the ice.
The Caps have been outplayed several times in the postseason, but caught the lucky break. They've also been outshot as badly as Buffalo was last night, 35-16, and won.
This time the cards fell the other way. Washington did absolutely everything right. It played a tremendous counter attack game without giving up anything defensively. Its goaltender stopped everything he saw. But Buffalo won.
"You see games like this all the time, where one team dominates and then the other one takes advantage of the one mistake," said Kolzig, who has been brilliant for Washington throughout the postseason with a 1.66 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage. "We dominated them, but that's why the guy at the other end of the ice [Hasek] gets paid $9 million."
Hasek shrugged when asked if he could force a Game 7 and possibly anchor an unheard-of comeback in a conference final, where no team has rallied to win after being down 3-1.
"I am glad to win and give my team a chance to play Game 6," he said. "Can I play like this twice more? We will see. I make no promises. But next game is the most important of our year."
The Capitals were hoping to clinch the first Stanley Cup Finals spot in their 24-year history last night. But a loose puck in the neutral zone late in the third period proved their undoing.
After Buffalo's Darryl Shannon and Washington's Andrei Nikolishin each scored in the first period, neither team could score again until Woolley gathered in that loose puck and split the Caps' defense.
Adam Oates tried to poke at the puck from behind, but Woolley maintained control and cut right. There, defenseman Calle Johannson was trying to close the gap but couldn't get there fast enough.
The low shot got under Kolzig's usually reliable stick and through his legs for the game-winner.
"We kept our foot on the snake for all but five seconds," Kolzig said. "And in that five seconds the snake bit us. Now we have to go to Buffalo one more time and win the series."
It was a bitter disappointment for the sellout crowd of 19,740 at MCI Center that had seen two possible goals, both by Oates, disallowed earlier in the game: one by a referee's whistle and another, shortly before Woolley scored, due to inconclusive video replays.
"It's obviously disappointing to lose this game," said Oates, who also was unable to score in a virtually open net. "It was probably our best game of the postseason. But Dominik played like an MVP. On the open net, I didn't get it up high enough and on the last one, I saw him reach back to stop the puck from going over the line. I knew it was close because I saw his arm go back."
But Oates said he couldn't say for sure it was a goal. Neither could the replay judges.
The Caps now have a 3-2 advantage in the series. The franchise is 2-3 in series in which it has taken a 3-1 lead, with the two wins coming in the first and second rounds this season.
No team has ever come back from 3-1 down in a conference finals. History, it seems, is waiting for Buffalo or Washington in one of the next two games.
A look at the Washington Capitals' playoff exits after holding a 3-1 series advantage:
Year .. ..Round .. .. .. ..Winner
1987 .. ..Div. semi. .. .. N.Y. Islanders
.. ..Div. semi. .. ...Pittsburgh
1995 .. ..Conf. qtr. .. ...Pittsburgh
Pub Date: 6/03/98