Despite finals fade, Capitals hope to capitalize
Posted: Wednesday June 17, 1998 03:58 PM
Despite losing the Stanley Cup, it was a breakthrough year for Kolzig and the Capitals (AP)|
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Their quick fade in the Stanley Cup finals did little
to tarnish a breakthrough season for the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals weren't quite good enough to hoist the Stanley Cup, but next
season they will raise a banner to the roof of the MCI Center proclaiming
their status as 1997-98 NHL Eastern Conference champions.
The banner and the accompanying trophy will serve as a significant
consolation prizes for the Capitals, who reached the finals for the first
time in their 24-year history before being swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
"We came a long way this year as a team and an organization," said Olaf Kolzig, who also
made great strides as an NHL goaltender. "I've got an empty feeling right
now, but a couple weeks down the road I'll sit back and realize how great
this year really was."
Before this year, the Capitals enjoyed only one season worth recognizing
with a banner on the rafters: 1988-89, when they won the Patrick Division
title. That lonely banner will finally have some company, but can the
Capitals add to their meager collection next season?
Berube and captain Dale Hunter will be
well into their 30s when training camp opens. But Washington has other key
players who appear to have several good seasons ahead of them.
Kolzig, 28, finally became a starter this season and responded with a
33-18-10 record and an impressive 2.20 goals-against average. He alone was
the main reason the Capitals advanced to the finals despite being outshot
577-430 over the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Gonchar, 24, and Richard Zednik,
22, both scored seven goals in the playoffs. Brendan Witt, 23, is
rapidly becoming an excellent defenseman and Andre Nikolishin, 25, played
extremely well after missing the first 42 games of the season following
offseason knee surgery.
"We had guys like Gonchar, Witt and Zednik play meaningful roles all year
long," general manager George McPhee noted. "They're all in their prime, so
we should be in good shape for a while."
The Capitals also hope to benefit from the knowledge they gained during
the playoffs. While playing under intense pressure for six straight weeks,
Washington established itself as one of the league's elite teams.
"These players are going to recognize over the summer that all the
attention they received was great," McPhee said. "They'll come back to
training camp 10 to 15 percent better from the experience of having gone
through it. It will make them all better players."
Coach Ron Wilson said, "You have to taste this sort of disappointment to
understand how sweet it would be to win."
After spending much of their first season in Washington operating in the
shadow of the NBA Wizards, the Capitals became the talk of the town in May
and June. The question now is: will their newfound popularity help fill
seats at the MCI Center next season?
"We'll find out over the summer when we see the season-ticket sales,"
said a skeptical Oates, who couldn't forget the winter nights when the
Capitals performed at home in a half-empty arena.
The MCI Center was rocking during the finals against the Detroit Red
Wings, but Washington's playoff openers against Boston and Ottawa didn't
even draw sellout crowds.
"Obviously we got great support after we started winning. It was
fantastic," Oates said. "During the year it was awful. But people like a
winner, so maybe they'll be interested in us next year."
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