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Paul Fichtenbaum
May 07, 1990
In a boffo show, obscure Cap John Druce brought the Rangers to their knees
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May 07, 1990

Druce On The Loose

In a boffo show, obscure Cap John Druce brought the Rangers to their knees

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Last season, for instance, Chris Kontos, who had scored 26 goals in 162 career games, got nine goals in 11 postseason games for the Los Angeles Kings. In the '86 playoffs rookie Claude Lemieux had 10 goals, including four game-winners, and six assists to help the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup. During the regular season Lemieux had scored one goal in 10 games. In '85 Darryl Sutter of the Chicago Blackhawks got 12 goals in 15 playoff games after having scored 20 goals during the regular season. In '74 Boston's Gregg Sheppard put in 11 goals in 16 playoff games after having had 16 goals during the regular season.

Scorers aren't the only ones who have flicked a magic stick come April. Goal-tender Steve Penney played just four regular-season games for the Canadiens in 1983-84. His record? No wins, four losses. In 15 playoff games Penney had three shutouts and a 2.20 goals-against average. Thirteen years earlier, another rookie netminder, who had played only six games during the regular season, helped the Canadiens win the Cup. His name was Ken Dryden.

This playoff season, Druce is on the loose, and he has been feasting on leftovers. At 6'1", 200 pounds, he is big enough and strong enough to camp in the slot, shrugging off defensemen and ignoring the occasional chop to the back of the legs goaltenders levy as fines for trespassing. Nearly all of Druce's 12 goals were within 10 feet of the net and came off rebounds or deflections.

In the division semifinals he scored three goals, helping to lift the Capitals over the Devils in six games. Then, in Game 1 of the finals, at Madison Square Garden, Druce and the Caps seemed to be trying to lull the favored Rangers into a false sense of security. He scored one goal, and Washington lost 7-3. In Game 2 Druce had a hat trick, his first three-goal game since midget hockey. And because his playoff scoring line read 7-0 (goals and assists) at the time, his teammates sharpened the needle by telling him that he must be going for the Cy Young Award. Druce took care of that in Game 3, at the Capital Centre, by assisting on two goals. He also scored two goals. With Dino Ciccarelli, Washington's best offensive forward, sidelined with a sprained left knee, Druce's production was particularly timely.

By Game 4, on April 25, Druce was playing like a Honeymooners episode: You knew what was coming, yet it was pleasing just the same. Two more goals—the first swatted waist-high out of the air with his stick from the slot, the second a deflection—helped the Capitals to a 4-3 overtime win that put them ahead three games to one. The most compelling moment of the series, and its final one, occurred in overtime of Game 5, at the Garden, when Druce drove to the net, fought off Ron Greschner's check and tipped Courtnall's shot over goalie John Vanbiesbrouck for a 2-1 victory.

"I've had so much luck in this series, and that was a pure example," Druce said after the series-winner. "I just happened to be there and stuck out my stick."

If luck did play a part in his performances against the Rangers, Druce must have been saving it for a long time. Consider that before this season, in his last 30 postseason games—16 in junior hockey, 13 in the minors and one with the Caps last April—he had failed to score a goal. "The story of the series was John Druce," said Ranger coach Roger Neilson. ""He's a guy who's a checker. He isn't even a scorer. Every time he stuck out his stick, the puck went in."

What might be even more vexing for Neilson is that when Druce was 15 he attended Neilson's summer hockey school in Peterborough, Ont., where he no doubt learned the advantages of hanging around the net and picking up rebounds. Back then, Druce was happy just to stick with a team. In his first year of junior eligibility, at age 17 in 1983, he was cut from the Peterborough Petes. He caught on with a Junior B squad, for which he admits to having merely a "so-so year."

Druce, who grew up in Peterborough, made the Petes the following season, but with 12 goals and 14 assists in 54 games, he was far from being a scoring star. "We were on the checking line together at Peterborough," says Washington forward Rob Murray, who has known Druce longer than any of the other Capitals. "Our first year there, we went to the finals [of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs], and our line was probably the best on the team. He's always had a good touch, and he's always been very powerful, but a lot of times he lacked intensity."

The Caps were impressed enough by Druce's raw physical tools—the wide body, the strong skating, the puck-handling skills—to draft him in the second round (40th overall) in 1985, but his ascension through the system has been as slow as the movement of an appropriations bill through Congress. Druce spent another season in Peterborough, winding up with modest totals of 22 goals and 24 assists, before playing two full seasons with the Binghamton (N.Y.) Whalers of the AHL. In his second AHL season, 1987-88, Druce's offensive skills finally caught up with his physical ability, and he scored a career-high 32 goals.

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