A reporter from The Washington Post tried an experiment on the day Peter Bondra scored his 50th goal for the Washington Capitals this season. She took his photo—a good head shot—to various metro area locations and asked people if they could identify this man. She received the response she thought she would receive. No one knew who he was.
"No one," Rachel Alexander, the reporter, says. "A policeman outside the MCI Center a couple of hours after the game had no idea. I got all kinds of guesses. The best was from a guy who was sitting in a sports bar with SportsCenter on the television behind him. It was surreal. The television was showing Bondra scoring the goal as the guy said, 'Is it Jeffrey Dahmer?' "
Beautiful, huh? In this era of media overkill—Flash: Dennis Rodman has decided to keep the same modern-art pattern to his hair for the seventh and deciding game against the Indiana Pacers—the man who tied for the NHL lead in goals this season (52, with Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks), and who has more goals than any other player over the past four years (184, six more than John LeClair), is as anonymous as a guy sorting mail at the post office. He shoots! He scores! He's invisible!
Even as he taught his teammates how to huff and puff and blow down the house that Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek had built during a golden season, Bondra was overlooked. Even the Sabres had forgotten him—until he jumped them for two goals last Thursday night in Buffalo, the second in overtime to give the Capitals a 4-3 win. That victory, coupled with a 2-0 shutout two days later, gave Washington a 3-1 series lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals. (Game 5 was scheduled for Tuesday in Washington.)
"We forgot that Peter Bondra is a superstar," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff glumly noted after that loss in Game 3. "We didn't treat him the way a superstar should be treated. You can bet that we will now."
They probably were too late. Coming back from an ankle injury that knocked him out of half of the first-round series against the Boston Bruins and a concussion that sidelined him for a game in the second round against the Ottawa Senators, Bondra has returned to his quiet superstar form at the right time for the Capitals. Having grown up in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, he'd known about the abilities of Czech native Hasek since Hasek was 17 years old. Bondra told his teammates that the best goalie on the planet was also human and beatable.
To prove his point, the 30-year-old right wing scored on a power play with five seconds left in the second period of Game 2 in Washington to break a 171-minute, 10-second scoreless string by Hasek against the Capitals, dating to Oct. 9, 1997. See, boys? That's how it's done. The goal started Washington toward a 3-2 overtime win. Exhibit B was the two goals he scored in Game 3. His line—Bondra, Russian center Andrei Nikolishin and Czech-born Richard Zednik—accounted for all four Capitals goals.
By Game 4 last Saturday, the message had been received: The Dominator was not so dominant anymore. Craig (the Chief) Berube, who had been the only forward in NHL history to have played more than 50 postseason games without scoring a goal, slapped one home from just above the face-off circle, and Joey Juneau slapped home another from just this side of the Canadian border. The Capitals, looking as strong as they have all season, were 2-0 winners and one victory from reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
"When we struggled on offense against Boston and Ottawa, we got dumped on a little bit, but people were forgetting that we didn't have Peter," Washington coach Ron Wilson said after Saturday's game. "That was a big thing for us. He comes back, the fastest skater on our team, a goal scorer, and he's a scary sight coming at you. He's one of those guys, too, who scores in flurries. He gets hot. It's good to see him get hot."
A ninth-round draft choice for the Capitals in 1990, when he already was 22 years old, the 6'1", 200-pound Bondra is accustomed to emerging from obscurity and surprising people. Because he was virtually unknown to NHL scouts, he might be the alltime draft bargain. Bondra was not eligible to play for Czechoslovakian national teams because he was born in Luck, Ukraine, and was a Russian citizen. (Motivated by the promise of farm land and employment from the conquering Russians, his parents' families had immigrated from Czechoslovakia after World War II before his parents returned to their homeland when Peter was three.) When scouts gathered at international tournaments to see Hasek or Jaromir Jagr or any of the other budding Czech stars, Bondra was home playing in the Czech Division I league and despairing.