Once-hurting Caps find laughter is best medicine Stress relief makes trip to Finals no joke


DETROIT -- Adam Oates had just been high-sticked near his eye. He was leaning over at mid-ice, not feeling very happy, and all at once he hears someone screaming at him.

"Bleed, Oatsy, bleed," yelled the voice in the middle of an NHL Eastern Conference playoff game. "I got mad and looked up, and it was Ron [coach Ron Wilson] yelling at me," Oates said. "It was a very stressful situation and there he is yelling and laughing. Heck, it was funny, and I laughed, too."

The Washington Capitals never used to laugh. They never used to win in the playoffs, either. But tonight, at 8, they have a date with the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

It is a match that features two teams with totally different demeanors, and yet, at their core, they are very much the same.

The Capitals are the decided underdogs here, but when the season started, no one was exactly sure Detroit would get here either.

After winning their first Cup in 42 years, the Red Wings had to handle the tragic limousine accident that left popular defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov with brain damage, and the absence of their high-powered center Sergei Fedorov, who held out most of the regular season in a salary dispute.

Adversity was all around the Red Wings.

In Washington, the Capitals were trying to get over missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. They also were adjusting to a new coach and general manager and trying to figure out how to stop a string of injuries that had been like a curse for more than two years.

Adversity was all around the Capitals, too.

"They're a lot like us," said Detroit coach Scotty Bowman, who used a serious approach to keep his team focused. "They've gone through quite a bit, like us. They're a veteran team, like us. We're not taking them lightly because they're very similar to our team. They've gotten through the adversity. They have got a lot of key ingredients that we have."

The players even sound like each other, when they go over their game plans.

"We're going to have to play physical," said Caps defenseman Brendan Witt. "They have so much speed and skill, we've got to knock them off their game. But we have to be smart about it. We can't spend the whole night killing penalties."

Earlier in the day, Red Wings center Kris Draper was thinking back to last year's Cup Finals, when his line's job was to knock Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers silly. Now, he has to do the same to Peter Bondra and the Caps.

"We've got to make it as tough as possible for their guys to build up speed," said Draper. "We have to take them out of their game. We don't want to be giving them a lot of chances, because they've got guys who can put the puck in the net."

Before the Red Wings could sweep Philadelphia and win their Cup, they had to learn to play differently. Always an offensive team, the Wings had to teach their high-powered forwards how to be responsible on defense. It became their main objective and it was only then that everything came together.

This season, the Capitals have had to reinvent themselves, too. They had to change from the dour, "How are we going to blow this game?" Caps into a confident, poised team that could find a way to win.

The Caps went 50 straight games dating to February 1995 without once having come from behind to win in the third period. They were a team with an unmatched record for choking in the postseason, having blown a record three series when leading 3-games-to-1.

They have been able to come from behind throughout these playoffs and clinch each series they've played. And one of the reasons is Wilson and his free-spirited ways of motivating.

"The day we were to play Ottawa in Game 2, he came into the locker room," said Caps defenseman Craig Berube. "He had these two sticks, like lollipop sticks. One had my face on it and the other had Ottawa's goalie Ron Tugnutt's face. Tugnutt was starting that night and we had only beaten him once in two years.

"Well, Ron gets down on his knees in the middle of the room and in this high-pitched kid's voice, he performs this little play. 'Chief gathers in the puck. He shoots on Tugnutt. He scores! Tugnutt is crying! Crying!' "

Oates also recalled the scene.

"It's my favorite one," he said. "He knows we're human, that we put pressure on ourselves and he relieves it. He shows us that it's just a game and reminds us of how we felt when we were little and nothing got to us."

No one can imagine Bowman motivating his team like Wilson, but when they take the ice tonight, both coaches figure to see mirror-like efforts on the ice.

Stanley Cup

Washington vs. Detroit

(Best of seven)

Date Site .. .. ..Time .. .. ..TV

Ton. at Det. .. .. .8 .. .. ..Fox

Thu. at Det. .. .. .8 .. .. .ESPN

Sat. at Wash. .. ...8 .. .. .ESPN

6/16 at Wash. .. ...8 .. .. .ESPN

6/18 at Det. .. .. .8* .. .. .Fox

6/20 at Wash. .. ...8* .. ...ESPN

6/23 at Det. .. .. .8* .. .. .Fox

*-If necessary

Pub Date: 6/09/98

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