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Caps Way-Back Machine: Dale Huntered

Dale Hunter. (File photo)

Remember April 16, 1988? Here's a WaPo game-day headline to jog the memory:

CAPITALS TRY TO LAY IMAGE TO REST AGAINST FLYERS TONIGHT; Series Victory Would Go a Long Way Toward Erasing Bad Playoff Memories

Huh. Probably could have recycled that one today in a pinch.

Anyhow, the next day's paper was a hell of a lot cheerier, and it had Caps bylines by Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan and the incomparable William Gildea. Here's his column from that morning, the first and only morning after a game 7 win in franchise history.

By William Gildea

All was forgiven.

For the second straight season, it came down to a seventh playoff game. For the second straight season, an overtime seventh game. But this one had a different ending for the Washington Capitals.

"It was the most important win ever for this team," said General Manager David Poile.

And what a way to win it, coming from three goals behind. The victory fetched on the breakaway by Dale Hunter at 5:57 of overtime was the sweetest in the history of the franchise. Capital Centre erupted as Hunter beat goalie Ron Hextall to complete a three-victory Capitals comeback over the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-4, to win the Patrick Division semifinal round.

Coach Bryan Murray raced across the ice in one of the happiest moments of his life to congratulate his players, who had surrounded Hunter.

Jubilantly, Murray waved his arm, and he himself was quickly embraced by his players.

"Last year was the most disappointing defeat in the history of the team," said Poile. He was contrasting last night's heart-stopping victory with last April's four-overtime, seventh playoff game defeat by the New York Islanders. "Our guys showed tremendous courage."

For Murray, there was vindication, and plenty of it.

"After Sunday's loss in Philadelphia," he said, "I knew it would take a heck of an effort to get back in it.

"No matter what happens in the next series, our guys have shown great determination, to be down 3-1 in games, 3-0 in the second period, and to come back the way we did."

Murray said the keys to the game were to get a faster pace in the second period, because the Capitals play more men than the Flyers. He thought the Flyers would tire. "Mark Howe must have played more than 40 minutes," said Murray.

Both Poile and Murray indicated that taking Howe, Philadelphia's top defenseman, out of the Flyers' offense as much as possible was crucial.

And they did.

One other thing: The Capitals' most important personnel move of last offseason was the acquisition of Hunter. No one would doubt that after Hunter's two-goal, one-assist effort last night.

But as glorious as victory was, it was always in doubt. These were the Capitals, who had written a long history of playoff frustration.

And, many times last night, it appeared that another chapter of mortal ache and higher woe was unfolding.

The Capitals had their chances. So many chances. They peppered Hextall. Mike Gartner hit the crossbar in overtime. But they could not finish off the shaky Hextall in regulation. In fact, they almost let Hextall get away entirely -- they didn't lay a glove on him early and disaster often seemed imminent. It was a typical Capitals performance, tension-filled from beginning to end.

The seventh-game fever ran high even before the opening faceoff. A spirited, long-suffering crowd arrived early, hoping for playoff redemption. On the ice, Capitals and Flyers threatened to brawl during the warmups.

Hextall was the culprit, firing pucks from his end toward the Capitals while they were taking practice shots from their blue line.

Indeed, goalies are a rare breed.

The Capitals turned and headed up ice toward Hextall, as other Flyers skated in and a preliminary tag-team match was about to erupt. But an alert alternate official, monitoring proceedings, rushed down from the stands and ordered both teams back to their own portions of the ice.

Given that bizarre scene, fan fervor rose even higher until, when the Capitals took the ice, the roar was deafening. Almost all but outnumbered Flyers rooters and those stuck in traffic were on their feet, screaming encouragement to the Capitals and waving white pompons distributed at the entrances.

But then, trouble. The game began. Everyone knew what the Capitals might be capable of in a showdown playoff game. Season after season of great expectations have been followed by heartbreak.

And here it came again, it appeared. Almost unbelievably, the Capitals lacked the intensity of their fans. There had almost been a pregame fight, now everyone wanted a hockey game to break out. Yet minutes, long and tedious, passed before the Capitals even managed a shot, the best possible scenario for a Hextall who had been so vulnerable throughout the series.

Things worsened. Defenseman Grant Ledyard was caught spearing Philadelphia's Rick Tocchet. For that, Ledyard received a five-minute major penalty and banishment from the game. The irony was that the Capitals believe Tocchet had gotten away with spearing several times during the series. Every playoff, something unpredictable and strange happens to the Capitals.

It took the Flyers a mere 22 seconds to score. With the Capitals down a goal and an important defenseman for the game, the crowd fell silent.

They sat back like their team, the worst yet to come.

The Flyers opened up with two quick goals in the second period. At 3-0, it appeared that the Capitals' road to the Stanley Cup had ended in the Capital Centre parking lot, or someplace.

Then came Garry Galley's jump-start. A hard shot and goal brought the Centre alive again, and, more important, the Capitals.

Five minutes into the third period, Hunter put the Capitals ahead, 4-3. Brad Marsh countered. It was 4-4. Both teams attacked relentlessly.

Hearts and hopes were with the Capitals -- the home-ice advantage.

Six minutes to go and another Capitals crisis. Goalie Pete Peeters had his feet sliced out from under him by a passing Flyer's stick; Peeters hit hard and was shaken, but no penalty was called. He dusted off the ice chips.

A counterattack. Hextall withstood a last-minute assault. Back to the other end. Peeters made two tough saves in the dying seconds. For the second straight year, it would be a Game 7 overtime. Shortly, Howe went off for hooking Gartner. The Capitals had the power play. But they still could not win it. Could this be another multi-overtime marathon?

No. Hunter broke free. You could see it coming. This had to be it.

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 22, 2008; 12:29 PM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Next: Playoff Week on (Game) 7th Street

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