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Hockey in May Is New Experience for Liut, Capitals

HARTFORD COURANT

The Washington Capitals and Mike Liut have held much in common for several years.

Each has enjoyed a number of dynamite regular seasons. Neither has been to the Final Four of the playoffs.

April showers may mean plenty of sweet-smelling things will blossom in May. But never the Caps or Liut. Hockey in May is a new experience for both.

“A lot of funny things can happen in the playoffs,” said Liut as he prepared for Thursday’s Wales Conference final opener in Boston. “Hockey can be such a fragile thing.”

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The Caps became one of the NHL’s premier regular-season teams starting in 1982. So what happened this season? They finished under .500 for the first time in eight seasons but are enjoying their greatest playoff success in their 16-year history.

Liut was a first-team NHL All-Star in 1981 in St. Louis. He was Canada’s goalie in the Canada Cup that year. In 1987 with the Whalers, Liut was named a second-team All-Star.

“But how many games has he won in the playoffs the last three years or so,” asked Hartford Whalers General Manager Ed Johnston a few days after he traded Liut to Washington March 5 for Yvon Corriveau. “Not many.”

Liut, in his 11th NHL season, and the Caps always have had their share of admirers and detractors. And those detractors still will tell you that Don Beaupre, who won four of five games and had a 2.55 average before hurting his groin, actually has been sharper than Liut.

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But Liut is 4-2 with a 3.24 goals-against average. And unless Coach Terry Murray pulls a surprising switch in favor of the healing Beaupre, Liut will be in goal for Game 1 against the Bruins.

“This is great,” Liut, 34, said. “But the league’s so close now I thought we had a chance in Hartford to be in this position this spring, too. It’s crazy how momentum changes so quickly in the playoffs.”

Liut didn’t play the night of the Whalers’ Game 4 disaster, a 6-5 loss to the Bruins. Beaupre did. When the score flashed up at the Cap Centre that the Whalers were ahead 5-2 in the third period, Liut said he looked down the bench at former Bruin Bob Joyce and said, “‘Boston’s dead.’ But just at the end of our game, it flashed up, 5-5. It was mind-blowing.”

So was the trade.

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“It was an emotional blow,” Liut said. “I didn’t want to be traded as much for personal reasons as for professional ones. People say what does Hartford have compared to Boston, New York or Washington? Well, it’s a heck of a nice place to raise a family. If I felt I needed a culture boost I could be in New York in two hours. We have a lot of friends in Hartford. It was really hard.

“If I had the year that I had last year (13-19-1, 4.25 GAA) and I got traded, I might have retired. I hate to say one year was my best, but I was playing as well as I’ve ever played this year.”

Liut, whose 19-16-1 record pushed him to 13th on the all-time NHL victory list at 270, led the league with four shutouts and was second in goals against (2.53) and save percentage (.905).

“My (knee) injury might have cost me an All-Star Game and a (Vezina) trophy,” Liut said. “I felt I played as well as them (Patrick Roy and Daren Puppa), just not as many games.”

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Liut says he will sell his Simsbury, Conn., home and move to the Washington area, although he hasn’t decided if he will buy there. His wife, Mary Ann, and three children remain in Connecticut while he lives in a hotel. It has not been an easy two months for a devoted family man.

Was he shocked by the trade?

“There had been a lot of talk a few weeks before. I was involved. And I made a comment to Joel Quenneville and Ronnie Francis in the back of the bus (at the Cap Centre March 2), ‘I may have played my last game for Hartford.’ But I have to say I still did not think it would happen.

“There was talk about Kevin Dineen, too. But nobody wants to pull a trigger on something like that. The one guy who they could trade with relative ease of conscience was me. At my age, there’s much less chance I could embarrass them. Kevin could do it on and on and on.”

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Is he bitter?

“I’ve accepted the trade,” Liut said. “I understand why they did it. You want to talk fiscal responsibility. Fine, we can write it off to that. They had to make a decision on goaltending and they made the decision to go with the younger guys.

“And I think when they secured (No. 1 pick Bobby) Holik they started looking to next year. We weren’t going anywhere in the standings. I thought I was in position to help that team for a couple of more years. The experience factor means a lot to younger players as long as the veteran player is willing to impart what he knows and they’re willing to accept it.”

Liut has been promised a contract extension. It is a contract that pays $460,000 this year and enters its option next year. The Whalers have said they are picking up about $100,000 on the remainder of his deal. Liut said one more year probably would be added by the Caps.

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“I didn’t want to come down here as a Band-Aid,” Liut said.

So, Mike Liut, one of the bigger names in Hartford sports history, pushes on in life. After the Caps eliminated the Rangers 2-1 in overtime Friday, Liut came home Saturday for his daughter Jenna’s First Communion.

“The timing couldn’t have been better,” Liut said. “It’s a big time in her life. She’s a Camp Fire Girl, too. I was home for a day and I got to make an appearance, too, with her.”


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