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."
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.
He finished 1988-89 in Washington, scoring eight goals in 48 games, but that wasn't good enough to crack the lineup of the revamped Capitals at the start of this season. Even when Druce was recalled from the Baltimore Skipjacks, he was usually cast as a fourth-line player, a defensive specialist whose job was to prevent goals, not score them. That's what makes Druce's playoff performance all the more stunning.
"He was not a top player in junior, not a top player in the minors," said Poile. "This is not only a good story today, but a good story for years to come."
"Everybody keeps asking me what's going on," said Druce, fingering a scraggly blond postseason beard that looks as if it could use a couple more playoff rounds of maturing. "You have to wonder if someone up top is looking down on me."
Well, his teammates looking at him see a player who is creating many of his own goal-scoring opportunities with his speed, strength and tenacity. Almost to a man, though, they say the biggest difference in Druce is his confidence. "When he first came here, he was a little bit scared to try to do too much," says Courtnall.
"John is the type of guy whose confidence level is extremely important," says Rob Murray. "He needs to be confident. Sometimes he gets down on himself."
Rest assured that if Druce's newfound scoring touch continues, lack of confidence will be the least of his concerns. Like most bona fide goal scorers, he will be concerned with congestion, both around the net and around his locker.