The area around John Druce's locker after Game 3 of the Patrick Division finals on April 23 looked like the crease during a goalmouth scramble. Bodies were everywhere, all searching for a piece of the action. Druce, a Washington Capital right wing, would have had a better chance of freeing himself from a couple of hulking defensemen than from this crowd of reporters and television crews.
In hushed tones Druce, who appeared both bewildered and embarrassed by the attention he was receiving, answered all the questions with the look of a schoolboy admitting that he had played hooky. Yes, he was surprised at his playoff performance. No, he never dreamed something like this could happen. Welcome to the big time, John.
The NHL's near-annual production of Let's Make a Playoff Hero out of the Least Likely Player is currently showing at arenas up and down the East Coast, starring Druce, 24, whose last claim to fame was winning the MVP award in a midget hockey tournament in Belleville, Ont. Druce had begun the season riding buses for Baltimore of the American Hockey League and had scored all of eight goals in 45 games since his December recall to Washington. But at week's end he led the NHL in playoff game-winning goals, with four, and was second to the St. Louis Blues' Brett Hull in total goals, with 12, and in power-play goals, with six.
Druce's nine goals against the New York Rangers in the Caps' four-games-to-one triumph in the division finals placed him in a five-way tie for third on the alltime list for goals scored in a playoff series, behind Jari Kurri (with 12, for the Edmonton Oilers in 1985) and Tim Kerr (with 10, for the Philadelphia Flyers in '89). Most important, Druce almost single-handedly carried Washington past New York, topping off his performance with the series-winning goal in overtime in Game 5 last Friday night. That victory put the Caps in the Wales Conference finals for the first time in their 16-year history. At last they could play in May.
"John Druce was not on the top of my list—anybody's list—to come through the way he did," said Washington general manager David Poile following Game 5. "He came out of nowhere to be the hero."
Until last week heroes were something the Caps never seemed to have, at least not in the playoffs. For the better part of the past decade, Washington was a regular-season powerhouse but a regular flop in the postseason. For a variety of reasons April was a month in which dreams died hard for the star-crossed Capitals.
In 1986 Washington crushed the Rangers in Games 2 and 3 to take a two-games-to-one lead in the division finals, only to lose the next three games. In the '87 division semifinals the Capitals had the New York Islanders down three games to one, but the Islanders rallied to win the next three, the quadruple-overtime Game 7 being one of the most memorable contests in NHL history. In the '88 division finals the upstart New Jersey Devils, with rookie Sean Burke in net, eliminated Washington in seven games. Last year the Caps were victims of the Peeters Principle. Washington goaltender Pete Peeters's spotty netminding in the division semis allowed the Philadelphia Flyers a number of soft goals, including Rick Tocchet's Game 6 series-winner, which bounced off the back of Peeters's leg and into the cage.
How ironic, then, that in a season in which the Capitals seemed to be in transition, a season in which their coach, Bryan Murray, was fired and replaced by his brother Terry, a season in which the Caps weren't even assured a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season, Washington played its way out of the divisional competition and into the conference finals against the Boston Bruins (page 18). Maybe all the Capitals really needed was one player to perform above his head. Considering his performance against New York, Druce would have accomplished that even if he had been playing on stilts.
"We've never had a player have a series like Druce had," said Poile, who took over as Washington's general manager in 1982.
"He's playing at the highest level of any time in his career," said Geoff Courtnall, the left wing on Druce's line. "When you get hot, anytime you shoot or touch the puck, it seems to go in. In almost every series there's a surprise, someone who plays above his level."