The cherry blossoms were out and the Capitals, as usual, were nearly so in the playoffs
April 17, 1988

Philadelphia flyers Coach Mike Keenan isn't much with a one-liner. But the Führer, as he is sometimes called by his charges, did drop a good one on Sunday night at the Spectrum. The Flyers had just overcome a three-goal deficit in the last 10 minutes of regulation and had beaten the Washington Capitals 5-4 in overtime. The dramatic victory gave Philadelphia a three-games-to-one lead in the Patrick Division semifinals, all but guaranteeing that it would advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Said Keenan with a perfectly straight face, "It was about time we got a break."

That is rich. Granted, the Flyers—who have been in the Cup finals three times in the '80s alone, only to come away empty each time—have had a tough year, thanks largely to themselves. General manager Bobby Clarke's trade of black-sheep defenseman Brad McCrimmon to Calgary has proved damaging, if not disastrous. Perennial 50-garbage-goal-scorer Tim Kerr missed much of the season with shoulder woes. He is back but rusty, a condition reflected in the Flyers' power play, which has been dismal all year and at week's end ranked 15th among the 16 playoff teams. The suspensions of goal tender Ron Hex tall (eight games) and designated hitter Dave Brown (15 games) hurt, as did a deluge of injuries that cost the Flyers 244 man-games. It all added up to Philadelphia's worst season since 1972.

Excuse the Capitals if they remain dry-eyed at the Flyers' plight. The Caps, after all, were a defeat away from extinction. The last break they got was in 1979, when the league agreed to place them in the Patrick Division.

Now the Caps can't get out. In eight seasons in the Patrick, the Caps have never survived the division playoffs. Bryan Murray became the coach in 1981, and since 1982, Washington has consistently been one of the best regular-season teams in the league. "Which means nothing if you have no success in the playoffs," admits defenseman Larry Murphy. Each spring the cherry trees burst into blossom, and each spring the Caps fold.

The Caps don't get breaks. No, the Caps break hearts. On April 20, 1987, the New York Islanders beat Washington in the fourth sudden-death overtime period—after two hours and eight minutes of hockey, at 1:58 a.m.—of the seventh and deciding game of the first round. To fully appreciate what a vintage Caps performance it was, one must note that they had led the Isles three games to one in that series. In their sordid playoff history the Caps have twice blown multigame leads.

The current series was not even nine minutes from being tied at two games apiece on Sunday when the Caps, leading 4-1, reverted to form. Flyer defenseman Mark Howe wristed a screened shot past teammate Brian Propp and Caps goalie Clint Malarchuk, and it was 4-2. Four minutes later Propp took Rick Tocchet's feed at Malarchuk's doorstep and made it 4-3. And with just 53 seconds to play and Flyers goalie Mark LaForest on the bench, Kjell Samuelsson—Ichabod Crane on blades—materialized on the edge of a goalmouth scramble to poke the game-tying goal through Malarchuk's pads.

If Scott Stevens (bruised right shoulder) and/or Rod Langway (charley horse), the Capitals' two best defense-men—indeed, the Capitals' two best players—had been on the ice, Samuels-son would not have been standing there to score that goal. Rather, he would have been on his ponderous duff, looking about to see what had hit him.

So the Caps shuffled off to their dressing room, heads down, burdened as much by the weight of their grim postseason history as by fatigue. An equipment boy slapped shoulders as they trudged past, shouting "Gonna get 'em in the OT, dudes. No doubt about it!" No one could look him in the eye.

Overtime was mercifully short. On the Flyers' third rush, Murray Craven and Tocchet collided comically behind the Capitals' net. The puck squirted into the right corner, where Dave Poulin dug it out and found Tocchet, who fed Craven in the slot. Craven deked Malarchuk to his knees, then flipped the game-winner into the net.

If Washington loses the series, Capitals owner Abe Pollin surely will start greasing his guillotine. Pollin endorses Murray frequently. He also endorsed ex-Washington Bullets coach Kevin Loughery before he fired him. All season there was speculation that Murray—and possibly David Poile, the general manager—would be purged if the Caps did not get out of the division playoffs. Poile acquired fearless stickman Dale Hunter from Quebec for the express purpose of dealing with the Flyers' fistic tendencies. In the series' first four games Hunter was the most conspicuously dirty player on the ice, which is saying something when your opponent is the Flyers. He also scored three goals.

Washington had beaten Philadelphia four times in seven regular-season games in 1987-88. The teams were so closely matched that they finished the season with identical records, even tying the final game 2-2. By the second game of the playoff series, their identities began to blur. Having lost the opener on their home ice, the Capitals shocked the hockey world by bullying the erstwhile Broad Street Bullies in Game 2, winning 5-4. There was Kevin Hatcher knocking Propp woozy with a cross-check to the neck. Craven had a tooth knocked out. There were Peter Sundstrom and Greg Adams, merrily running goalie Hextall into the boards. "If he wants to play like this," said Sundstrom of Hextail's wide-ranging, stick-swinging style, "he can expect the consequences."

One of the reasons the Caps were talking tough was Hunter, whose chutzpah rubs off on his teammates. Another was that Dave Brown is nursing a sore left wrist. Brown, one of the NHL's most notorious fighters, likes to lead with his left, but until the wrist gets better, he can't. It's sort of like Popeye in a spinachless society. That explains why the Caps' Bengt Gustafsson, who normally has little stomach for the rough stuff, was in Brown's face all week. Meanwhile the surly, muscular Tocchet, out of the lineup while recovering from a shoulder separation, got very antsy as he watched the Caps strafe the Flyers. "There are about 10 guys on that team I feel like killing," said Tocchet as the series headed to Philadelphia. "Live by the sword, die by the sword. If Hunter doesn't watch the way he uses his stick, he's gonna get hurt."

It was a fitting prologue to Game 3, which featured so much stickwork—and 135 penalty minutes—that it looked less like a hockey game than an open call for The Three Musketeers. Hunter spent his evening butt-ending, slashing and spearing Howe, Samuelsson and Hex-tall, but he failed to goad them into drawing penalties in retaliation. On his own, Hextall took cross-checking and slashing penalties and got a 10-minute misconduct for flipping a puck into Sundstrom's face while skating past the Caps bench.

Later, with a 40-foot skating start, Hunter bowled Hextall over. That enraged Keenan, who said after the game, "I don't know what would have happened if Hunter had maimed Ron Hextall, one of the superstars in the league." An equally acute remark would have been this: What would happen if Hextall had to serve out his own penalties? Hextall, who racked up 104 penalty minutes during the regular season—tying the NHL record he set last year—can vent his spleen with impunity, safe in the knowledge that he will never have to leave the game. In these times, with backup goalies always at the ready, it remains a mystery why the NHL permits a penalized goalie to stay in action while his penalty is served by a teammate.

As it happened, the evening's nearest thing to a maiming was inflicted on Hunter, not by him. With his own trusty stick, Tocchet cut Hunter twice, on his eyelid and cheekbone; each required three stitches. Doesn't anyone throw punches anymore? Ask Bob Gould, the Capitals forward, who was dropped by Ron Sutter, then again by Scott Mellanby. "We've got to learn," said a disgusted Murray after having watched referee Ron Hoggarth pack retaliators off to the penalty box right along with instigators, "that if everything's a trade-off, then lead with your right, baby."

The chippy, indeed brutal, play overshadowed a splendid defensive effort by the Flyers, who allowed Washington just 17 shots on goal. Presenting an especially difficult riddle for the Caps forwards was the 6'6" Samuelsson, the NHL's tallest player. In just his second full NHL season, he has progressed from being a stiff—the label he brought from the Rangers when Clarke acquired him last season—to an All-Star. True, his own coach picked him for the All-Star team—ahead of Washington's Stevens, a travesty—but Samuelsson has long since silenced his critics. With the score tied 3-3 at 15:26 of the second period of Game 3, Samuelsson pinched in behind Stevens, took Tocchet's neat feed and beat Pete Peeters to the stick side for the game-winning score. And the next night he scored the game-tying goal. "You can't get around the guy," says Brown, "and now he's scoring big goals for us. He does it all."

He has to. When Clarke packed McCrimmon off to Calgary, he did not foresee that Brad Marsh and Doug Crossman would have season-long slumps. Marsh has been particularly ineffective since suffering a concussion in December. Crossman and Keenan simply do not get along, and Crossman's play has gone downhill since the Canada Cup last summer. Keenan would like to stick with four defensemen through the playoffs but lacks four he trusts. Thus Howe and Samuelsson have been playing at least 30 minutes a game. Asked how he is holding up under the strain, Samuelsson says, "What do you mean? This is the best body in hockey!"

The teams, having dispensed with the matter of establishing mutual machismo awareness in Game 3, made Sunday's Game 4 about hockey. In fact, referee Denis Morel called only 22 minutes in penalties. The first and second periods were utterly tranquil, with the normally raucous Spectrum crowd unusually meek as the Flyers came out punchless. When Hunter's third goal of the playoffs put the Caps up 4-1 at 3:04 of the third period, Keenan, thinking the game was lost, pulled Hextall, apparently forgetting that when the month is April and the opponent is Washington, nothing is ever out of reach.

Afterward, Hunter surveyed the Caps' 3-1 hole rather optimistically. "It's been done before," he said of the task ahead. He was right—overcoming such a deficit in the playoffs has been done. But never by the Capitals.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO PHOTOBRIAN WINKLER/BENNETT STUDIOSGreg Smith zapped Peter Zezel in a Game 3 that had SRO penalty boxes. PHOTOBRUCE BENNETTGoalies' night out: Gustafsson and Hextall (left) held a boards meeting, while Ilkka Sinisalo had an uplifting session with Peeters. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOA Sutter punch put Gould down; then it was Hatcher who had No. 14's full attention. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHODown 4-1 in Game 4, the Flyers came back to win in overtime on a goal by Craven (32).

Eagle (-2)
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