The Washington Capitals awoke yesterday with mixed emotions. It was the day after they had seen their dream of a Stanley Cup championship cut short by the Detroit Red Wings. They found themselves filled with a mingling of disappointment, pride and even compassion for their conquerors.
Peter Bondra, the NHL's leading goal-scorer over the past three years, was at home like most of his teammates, sorting out the positives and negatives following a 4-1 loss Tuesday that completed Detroit's four-game sweep.
On one ledger was the fact that the Capitals won their first Eastern Conference title and reached the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their 24-year history. On another was the knowledge that the team has to improve to reach its goal.
"We showed a lot of people we could make it to the Finals," said Bondra. "We were really close to winning a Stanley Cup. We lost, so for sure we're going to think about it. I can say I learned a lot. Maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves. We saw it is something special."
The Capitals and their fans saw just how special in one of the most emotional Cup-raising celebrations in hockey history. There the ice at the MCI Center, Detroit captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Steve Yzerman lifted the Cup over his head, and then passed it to defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, seated in a wheelchair. Konstantinov has inthat chair because of a limousine accident left him with severe brain damage a few days after Detroit last season won its first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
Together, Yzerman, Konstantinov and their teammates made a half-lap around the ice in celebration.
"We all watched Detroit carry the Cup around," said the Caps' rock-solid defenseman, Joe Reekie. "They've been swept and then had their misfortunes and overcame them.
"Who wouldn't appreciate what they've accomplished and the way they rallied around Konstantinov? Everyone in the sporting world has to feel bad for him. You don't even have to be a sports fan, just somewhat of a humanitarian, to appreciate the scene we saw.
"I hated losing, but it was a great moment."
Washington coach Ron Wilson reflected on how far his team had come, and how he felt he had let his players down.
"My job was to instill a new attitude and we're well on our way to that," Wilson said. "But I'm disappointed in myself, that I couldn't really get our team to really believe in the Finals, that we were good enough to beat the Red Wings -- and that's not that we're a better team than the Red Wings, but that we were good enough to beat them.
"I never really saw that look that we had in the other three series. But we'll rebound. It's a great learning experience for me to be playing in June. It's been even better for our players because you have to taste this sort of disappointment to understand how sweet it would be to win."
The Capitals lost despite another fine performance by goalie Olie Kolzig, who finished with a 1.95 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Kolzig set nine Capitals records for goaltenders and tied one NHL record with four shutouts in a single playoff season.
Still, Kolzig could not stop the blazing Red Wings, who wound up with the top four scorers in the postseason -- Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom. Washington's Joe Juneau was fifth.
The performance of the Red Wings, whose nucleus ranges in age from 24 to 29, gave coach Scotty Bowman his eighth Cup, which tied the feat of the renowned Montreal coach, Toe Blake.
Yesterday, general manager George McPhee, who spent the day in meetings to assess how he wants to shape his team next year, and his players were facing reality. The reality, McPhee said, is that the Capitals, a non-playoff team the year before, made it all the way to the Finals.
"We got beat by a better team," he said. "We weren't good enough. We had a chance early in the series to win [Game 2] and we didn't. If we had, it could have changed the momentum. But after that, they were high as a kite and we were fragile the rest of the way."
Pub Date: 6/18/98