- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

If you thought the Washington Capitals' last trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs was entertaining, you ain't seen nothing yet.

During the Caps' 1998 run to the finals coach Ron Wilson used the Wizard of Oz as a rallying cry when he talked about spitting in the eye of the Wicked Witch of the West. He spouted a host of creative and often hilarious analogies to describe the task facing his team throughout the playoffs, from a flesh-eating virus to Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

So what kind of material does he have this year? Will there be a return to the land of Oz?

"I have one idea, but I'm not going to say anything yet," Wilson said. "I'm going to surprise the team with it. We'll use more humor this year than we did the last time."

More humor? This ought to be rich. What's he going to do, bring in Buddy Hackett to play center? Hire Gallagher as an assistant coach? Show Wizards game films? (Don't tell me about how good they are playing now. There is a reason they call it garbage time.)

Whatever Wilson comes up with, it will only make the upcoming playoffs better because it will be sassy and irreverent qualities often lacking in coaches and slowly being legislated away by the powers that run the leagues.

That's why Wilson should get some kind of honor at the American Comedy Awards for funniest coach on ice.

He could put it right next to another award he should win this year: NHL coach of the year.

No one should let Wilson's wit misdirect them from the job he has done. There was nothing funny about last year's disastrous, injury-filled 31-45-6 season. And no one was yukking it up about the Caps' start this season, when they were 14-17-7 in early January after an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Atlanta, the team they beat 5-2 last night at MCI Center.

But instead of losing his team after that January defeat by the Thrashers, Wilson won them over with a system that would play to their strengths opportunistic scoring and strong defense, anchored by the play of goalie Olie Kolzig.

The players' faith in Wilson and their execution of his system on the ice has led this team to a 28-6-4 record since that January loss to the Thrashers.

It's the best record in the league over that time, and the Caps are on the heels of the New Jersey Devils for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with six games left to play.

That turnaround should earn Wilson coach of the year honors.

It might seem kind of silly to remind everyone that this team at least until Wilson and general manager George McPhee took over was called a choker so much that some fans thought it actually was the name of the franchise.

In 14 straight trips to the playoffs, the Caps made it past the second round only once and never reached a Stanley Cup final. Worse, they blew 3-1 leads in playoff series against the New York Islanders in 1986 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992 and 1995.

That was all anyone wanted to talk about when the Caps made the playoffs under first-year coach Wilson in 1997-98, when Washington posted a 40-30-12 record. That's what generated all those exorcism and flesh-eating virus references from Wilson two years ago.

"We were underdogs in everyone else's minds except our own until we got to the finals [where they lost to defending champion Detroit in four straight]," Wilson said. "I think that is maybe where we failed a little bit. We went into the finals knowing that Detroit was probably a better team than we were. The other teams we played, at least in this room, we thought we were better than them. The standings in the regular season proved that. We had more points than the other teams and had home ice, and everybody said we were going to lose. That was fine. It's easier to play as an underdog."

Wilson is curious about how his team will be perceived.

"It's going to be interesting to see where we fall in the whole scheme of things this year," he said. "I would be willing to bet we will probably be considered underdogs in the first series we play. If we were to finish first in the East, there is still this perception that we are not a good team, that we are just Olie Kolzig. That's fine with me. If we are playing an eighth- or seventh- or sixth-place team that feels they are better than we are, the way we are playing right now we're going to win the series."

It seems silly to remind people of the Caps' past failures because this team doesn't carry that weight anymore at least not nearly to the extent it once did. Its run to the finals two years ago did a lot to bury those demons. This is a franchise that exudes confidence, not fear and a few laughs as well.

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