They had hoped that their age, an average of 30 years, would help them avoid the jitters and euphoria that had doomed younger NHL teams that had made surprise appearances in the Finals.
But yesterday, with Washington behind in this best-of-seven series 3-0, Brian Bellows, himself an old warrior at 33 and one of four Capitals to have won the Cup with other teams, explained that nothing prepares a team for the Stanley Cup experience except actually being there.
Bellows, who watched his second child being born last week, is a man who believes in miracles. But yesterday, he understood that it would be a big miracle for the Capitals to come back to win this series.
"We're playing a team that has won a Cup already," said Bellows, who scored his 50th career playoff goal Saturday. "They know little things can really count. You can get away with little things in the regular season, but here, if you're a little slow on the backcheck, if you're not getting back to help your defense, if you're staying out an extra 10 or 15 seconds -- all those things may seem very minor at the time, but all of a sudden they can make the difference between winning and losing.
"The margin for error is so small, so short at this time. When you get to this stage, a lot of it comes down to just wanting it more than the other team."
It sounds a strange thing to say. It sounds an even stranger thing to suggest. How could Detroit want the Stanley Cup more than the Capitals, who have never been to these dizzying heights before?
How could Detroit, which has been to the Finals three of the past four years, want it more than this Washington team that is made up of so many veterans who have never before gotten to the Finals and who are on the edge of finishing their long careers with this trip possibly being their last chance at winning hockey's Holy Grail?
"As so often happens in the NHL, until you lose a final, you don't really know what it really meant to want it that much," said Bellows, who lost the Cup once before winning it with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. "Look at Detroit. They lost it [in 1995], and then it took them a couple of years to get back. And when they did, at that point, they didn't want to relinquish the chance."
And now the Red Wings seem intent on clinching this series in Game 4 tomorrow night at MCI Center, and becoming the sport's first repeat winner since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins -- unless the Capitals can come up with a way to stop them.
Yesterday, at Piney Orchard in Odenton, Capitals coach Ron Wilson and his players wrestled with their plight. They reasoned out how they have gotten to this point. And they planned what they have to do to climb out of a 3-0 hole -- something only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs have done -- against the Red Wings -- in Stanley Cup history.
"If you throw out the first period of each of those games, we're 2-0 and still playing Game 3," said Wilson. "We've got to play much more determined in the first period. If anything, I'm proud we haven't just rolled over after falling behind so early.
"But throughout the playoffs, the first period was a strength for us. Now, in this series, our biggest strength has become our biggest weakness. It's much easier with the lead in the first period to play defense and set the tone.
"We've got to come out [in Game 4] and -- I'm not saying we've got to come out and take a two-goal lead. I'm saying we can't come in from that first period down one or two goals. We've got to come out with a shutout period."
In Game 1, the Capitals let in two goals and saw their rally come up one goal short and lost, 2-1. In Game 2, they gave up a first-period goal and wound up becoming the first team in 42 years to lose a Finals game after building a two-goal lead in the third period, falling, 5-4, in overtime.
And then, in Game 3 at MCI Center on Saturday night, the Capitals came out on fire, only to be doused by a Detroit goal 35 seconds into the game.
"That, coming on top of the way we lost Game 2, it put us back on our heels," said Capitals winger Joe Juneau. "We have to work so hard for our goals, and then we give away chances to them. I just think some guys are bringing their best to the table and others have a little more they have to bring.
"We're in a big hole, but we can't think this is lost and we won't get back here again. We're still here. We've still got a chance. Obviously, it's not a very big chance, but we've still got a shot at it."
All season, the Capitals have been the kind of team that cannot win with just a few of their players playing well. They need everyone.
All season, Wilson has been a master at inspirational pre-game speeches. He has used everything from the "Wizard of Oz" to "Apollo 11" to get the best out of his team.
Yesterday, he already seemed to be plotting what he could do before Game 4 tomorrow.
"Hey, 1942 Toronto," he said. "We'll be in there shouting, '1942!' Hey, isn't that a movie? Is it 1941? Well, we'll add a year to it."
Washington vs. Detroit
# (Detroit leads 3-0)
Date .. ..Res./Site .. ..Time .. .. TV
1 Det., 2-1
Gm 2 Det., 5-4**
Gm 3 Det., 2-1
Tom. at Wash. .. .. .. .. ..8 .. .ESPN
Thu. at Det. .. .. .. .. ...8* .. .Fox
Sat. at Wash. .. .. .. .. ..8* .. ESPN
6/23 at Det. .. .. .. .. ...8* .. .Fox
*-If necessary; **-overtime
If the Red Wings defeat the Capitals in Game 4, this would be the fourth consecutive year that the Stanley Cup Finals were decided in four games, the longest streak of sweeps in the history of the Stanley Cup, NBA Finals and World Series. A look at previous sweep streaks (there have never been successive sweeps in the NBA Finals):
Stanley Cup Finals
Year .. .. Result
1995 .. .. Devils def. Red Wings
1997 .. .. Red Wings def. Flyers
1968 .. .. Canadiens def. Blues
1969 .. .. Canadiens def. Blues
1970 .. .. Bruins def. Blues
1989 .. .. Athletics def. Giants
1990 .. .. Reds def. Athletics
1938 .. .. Yankees def. Cubs
1939 .. .. Yankees def. Reds
1927 .. .. Yankees def. Pirates
1928 .. .. Yankees def. Cardinals
Pub Date: 6/15/98