On the Capital Centre ice yesterday, Capital goaltender Ron Low was sharper in practice than Bernie Wolfe and earned yet another starting assignment, in tonight's 7:30 home game against Detroit and the returning prodigal, Greg Joly.
High in the stands, another goaltender watched the Capitals' practice, his presence sufficient to warrant the attention of general manager Max McNab, team president Peter O'Malley and even board chairman Abe Pollin. The spectator was Roger Crozier and, if McNab proves persuasive enough, Crozier could soon be one of the Capitals' masked men.
"I had a long talk with him," McNab said. "We've been pretty selective about our veterans and we like what we see in this guy. He is doing some thinking and I'm doing some thinking."
Crozier, 34, retired to Florida a year ago after stomach and pancreas ailments drove him from the Buffalo Sabres' nets. It was not the first time he had retired in a 515-game NHL career that began in Detroit in 1963. Some folks said it wouldn't be the last.
"When you're retired, you have the feeling you're not accomplishing anything," Crozier said yesterday. "And you're not. I miss a lot of the aspects of hockey. I miss being with the guys, I miss the travel."
One thing Crozier doesn't miss is the games.
"I always said the thing I liked least about hockey was the games," Crozier said. "There's always so much pressure on you. If you're a loser, there's the pressure to win and to survive."
When Crozier was healthy and able to play, he could be a superb goaltender. In 1964-65, he was a first-team allstar and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year with a 2.42 goals-against average and six shutouts for Detroit.
The following season his 2.34 mark in 12 Stanley Cup games earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the outstanding playoff player, although Montreal beat Detroit in a six-game final.
Joining the expansion Sabres in 1970, he became what McNab called "the main cog in Buffalo's formative years." Two seasons ago, when the Sabres reached the Stanley Cup final, Crozier posted a 17-2-1 record. Last season he was 8-2 before calling a halt.
"We want him for two things," McNab said, "his ability and knowledge. Roger has been out since Christmas last year, but he has come back before. He has winning experience and he knows what 40 and 50 shots are."
What McNab is offering Crozier is a deal based on a two-week conditioning program, after which all concerned would determine whether Crozier could play. If he couldn't he would still be invited to work with Washington's farmhands.
Crozier, who watched the Capitals beat St. Louis Sunday, was noncommittal.
"I'm just passing through," he said. "I know Max's son (Peter) real well and I like to stop and talk hockey. I was in Atlanta for a week in November and I'll probably be going on to Buffalo and Toronto.If I wanted to get back in harness, I've had a lot of chances. I don't really miss the playing. You never know though. Punch (Buffalo general manager Punch Imlach) used to say to me, 'I never know where you'll turn up.'"
Crozier, although technically Buffalo property, apparently has a verbal agreement with Imlach that would enable him to make his own deal with another club.
Should Crozier suit up, it would multiply the toughest problem that faces coach Tom McVie. After Low's great performance against St. Louis, in his second start in 18 hours, McVie said that he was "not in favor of a two-goalie system."
Yesterday McVie elaborated, admitting that his motives were strictly selfish.
"If you start one guy and he gets blown out, you can't help but second-guess yourself," McVie said. "It just multiplies the decisions you have to make. In practice it's good to have two, because with one you couldn't scrimmage. But the day of the game I'd just like to see one guy.
"The way I judge my goalies, who's going to play, on the particular day I take a look around and in my opinion whoever is sharpest on that day gets to start.
"There have been a lot more days this year I've gone with Ronnie. Bernie's had his problems. But if Bernie was to get sharper 42 times, then Bernie would play 42 straight games. I know both of them would like to play every game. And it's far better for a goalie if he knows he's going right back in.
"I'm not worried about using one man too often. Glenn Hall played 503 consecutive games, about 400 without a mask, and that was when those 1 1/2-inch hooked sticks were coming in. On the days off, he practiced against Bobby Hull, Kenny Wharram, Dennis Hull and Stan Mikita shooting at him with those hooked sticks."
Low, agreed that "if you're put in a situation to play 80 games, you play 80 games. That's what they pay you for. The more I play, I become more sharper than with spot duty.
"If it's not hurting me, I'll play whenever he wants me to. The team can't do enough for the man and I can't either, but I'd do anything for the man."
In that awful first season, Low faced 1,623 shots in 48 games and said, "There's no way you can play every game with this team." Now, with the shots coming in smaller bunches from farther out, Low said, "I'm enjoying it, every bit of it, a lot more than before."
If Crozier accepts the challenge, it should make Low - and Wolfe - even better.
Detroits is only four points ahead of Washington in the battle for fourth place in the Norris Division . . . Joly has collected one goal and six assists in 14 games with the Red Wings. He was dealt for defenseman Bryan Watson, who has switched teams enough to refrain from passing on emotional ammunition. Asked how he felt about facing his ex-teammates, Watson said, "Ask me after the game." . . . Washington left wing Bob Sirois, who suffered a broken thumb Dec. 7, returns to action tonight wearing a cast . . . Detroit will be without aggressive left wing Dan Maloney, sidelined by a shoulder injury . . . Terry Harper, the steady defenseman, is off the disabled list, however . . . The Mite (ages 6-8) teams of Benfield and the Capitol Boys Hockey Club will play a 5 p.m. preliminary.