- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2000

See if this sounds familiar: A team is supposed to host the first two games of a playoff series, but its opponent is having trouble scheduling Games 3 and 4 in its own arena. So the league changes the series to a 1-2-2-1-1 format, taking away some of the higher-seeded team's advantage. The team then proceeds to fall behind three games to none.

The 1999-00 Washington Capitals, you say?

How about the 1974-75 Washington Bullets?

What happened to the Caps in their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins wouldn't be so infuriating if it hadn't happened here before, to another Washington team. The Bullets, you may recall, reached the NBA Finals in '75 and were almost prohibitive favorites against Rick Barry and the Golden State Warriors. But the Warriors stole the opener from them, coming from 16 points down, and went on to a shocking sweep. All because the Ice Capades got in the way.

Had you forgotten about the '75 Bullets, or are you just not old enough remember? These things only happen in Washington, it seems. Seriously, I don't think any other city has been so put-upon. It's enough to give you an inferiority complex.

The similarities between this year's Capitals and the '75 Bullets are almost eerie. Both were seeded second in their conference. Both had the best home record in the league. (So stealing Game 2 from them really meant something, in other words.) And both had their series rearranged because of problems the other team was having with scheduling. The Warriors couldn't find an arena to play a Sunday game in - Oakland Coliseum and the Cow Palace were booked and CBS wanted the game played on that date for ratings purposes, so … home-court advantage be damned.

Would the Bullets have beaten the Warriors if the series had followed the conventional 2-2-1-1-1 format? Probably not. But I would have liked to find out and so, you can be sure, would the Bullets. First games, after all, can be very unpredictable. In the conference finals two years ago, the Capitals dropped the opener at home to Buffalo and had to go to overtime to salvage Game 2. Might the momentum have shifted the Sabres' way if Games 2 and 3 had been played at Marine Midland Arena? It's entirely possible. But the Caps got their skates under them with that win in OT and proceeded to take the next two in Buffalo.

The difference between the '75 Bullets and this year's Capitals is that the Capitals are still breathing this morning. They forced a Game 5 last night by turning back the Penguins, 3-2. Now they just have to do it again, just have to take it 20 minutes at a time and see if they can get this series back to Pittsburgh, where the pressure on the Pens will begin to build. Coming back from a 3-0 deficit is still a near-impossible dream for the Caps, but regaining their self-respect isn't and winning two at MCI Arena would be a major step in that direction.

Besides, since the 7-0 slaughter in Game 1, the Capitals have played very good hockey. That's what's so frustrating about it. The Penguins haven't been dominating them by any means; they've just been a little bit better.As Ken Klee said, "When you hold them to [about] 20 shots, with their forwards, you're doing a good job. [Jaromir] Jagr scores the winning goal in [in overtime in Game 2], and all of a sudden [people think] he had a great game. [In reality,] he had no chances."

The Penguins, it should be clear by now, aren't really a seventh seed. They just ended up a seventh seed because Jagr missed 19 games. Make no mistake: If Pittsburgh gets past this series, it has as good a chance to win the conference as anybody.

Last night's game was another stomach-churner. The Caps came out like a horde of angry hornets and pretty much remained in that mood the rest of the evening. Oh, the chances they had even short-handed. That was how Steve Konowalchuk scored the first goal and how Calle Johansson, on a breakaway, nearly got another.

It's funny that Konowalchuk should have scored first. After the Capitals were swept in the finals by Detroit two years ago, the coaches said, "If we'd had Kono [who missed the playoffs with an injury], we would have at least won a game." So there he was last night, in your basic jerseys-against-the-boards situation, getting the Caps going by beating Ron Tugnutt midway through the first period.

The Capitals had opportunities to score many more, though, and it nearly cost them when the Penguins went ahead 2-1 just before the end of the period on Jagr's wrap-around. But these Caps are made of strong stuff as their midseason resurrection attests. Chris Simon got them even by flicking in a rebound in the next period; Jeff Halpern, the rookie who never acts like one, scored the game-winner with 7:05 left; and Olie Kolzig stonewalled the Pens thereafter.

And so the grave the Capitals have dug for themselves has gotten a little shallower. They still have miles to go, but at least they found a way to defeat the Penguins. After four straight losses to Pittsburgh, three by a single goal, they must have been wondering what it took. Their fans must have wondered, too but you wouldn't have known it from decibel level at MCI Arena last night. I seriously doubt the place has ever been louder, even for the two games against the Red Wings in the finals. The Caps couldn't have asked for better backing from the home crowd.

"They say it's not a hockey town," said Ted Leonsis, a big smile on his face, "but it sounded that way to me. The crowd was really into it. They really lifted [the team] up."

The Capitals will need more of the same tomorrow night to go with the end-to-end hustle they've shown since Game 2. Forty-eight hours from now, this could be a very interesting series, indeed.

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