"We know how important this is," forward Darren McCarty said after practice Sunday. "We may never get back here again. And we know what we'd be missing."
The Red Wings, bidding to become the first team to repeat as Cup champions since 1992, are in the finals for the third time in four years. And coach Scotty Bowman is aiming for his eighth Cup, which would tie him with his mentor, Toe Blake.
The Capitals, meanwhile, are in the Cup finals for the first time in their 24-year history.
The best-of-7 series begins with games Tuesday and Thursday nights at Joe Louis Arena. Games 3 and 4 are scheduled for Saturday and June 16 in Washington.
"Probably the hunger is still there," forward Kris Draper said. "We're not excited. We just want to go back there and win it again."
A popular theory has it that repeating a championship is perhaps the most difficult feat in all of sports. The quest has been especially difficult for Detroit.
Just six days after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers for the team's first Cup triumph in 42 years, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov, suffered career-ending injuries in a limousine accident. Later in the summer, goalie Mike Vernon was traded.
"We had a lot of distractions during the year," Draper said. "But everyone was focused on one thing: winning and getting back to the Stanley Cup finals."
Detroit went 44-23-15 for 103 points through the regular season, finishing third overall in the league. With Chris Osgood running hot and cold in goal, the Red Wings needed six games to eliminate Phoenix, St. Louis and Dallas in each of the first three rounds.
"I think there's a lot of people who counted us out early because of the circumstances of losing a couple of players," defenseman Bob Rouse said. "That just made the other guys that much more hungry to prove them wrong. Obviously, we're a better team with Vlady. But I think it gave our guys the incentive to pick up their play and contribute."
Still, nothing really matters now except Washington. The Capitals might be new to the finals, they have the NHL's hottest playoff goalie in Olaf Kolzig.
Kolzig all 6-foot-3, 225 pounds of him leads all goalies in the postseason with a 1.69 goals-against average, four shutouts and a 12-5 record.
"Kolzig has been hot all year," Detroit coach Scotty Bowman said. "He covers a lot of net and he's consistent. And he's got to have a lot of confidence after beating a guy like (Buffalo goalie Dominik) Hasek."
The Capitals on several occasions in the past were victimized in the playoffs by a hogoaltender. Still, Kolzig is uncomfortable with the label.
"I never really believed I was the hot goaltender," he said. "I was a confident goaltender. I thought the way I played in regular season carried over into the postseason.
"People are going to call you what they want, but my teammates believe in me and I believe in them, and that's all that really matters."
Detroit was 2-0 against the Capitals this season. The Red Wings defeated Washington 2-0 at Joe Louis on Jan. 11 with Osgood in goal. Backup Kevin Hodson was in goal for the Red Wings' 4-2 win at Washington on Feb. 1.
But that was before Brian Bellows was signed as a free agent and Esa Tikkanen was acquired from Florida in March. Washington, which had not won a playoff series in four years, sailed into the Cup finals with those two in the lineup.
"To play in June is unbelievable. To be playing for the Stanley Cup is an unbelievable feeling," said center Dale Hunter, who played in more than 1,500 games without experiencing the thrill of advancing to the finals.
Washington coach Ron Wilson, vindicated after a humbling experience as coach of the unruly and unsuccessful U.S. Olympic hockey team, wasted little time establishing the Capitals as a decided underdog.
"We're going to have our hands full," he said. "Everyone probably thinks that we'll go out in four straight. The last couple of finals, it's been four and out for the losing team. I'm sure not too many people are going to give us much of a chance."
But their experience tells the Red Wings they shouldn't fall for that old ploy, either.
"We don't even look at ourselves as favorites," defenseman Larry Murphy said. "You get caught up in reading your press clippings and it's trouble."
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