"It was a funny game," Gerry Meehan said afterward, scratching his head. From a Washington viewpoint, yesterday's match with the St. Louis Blues was funny-weird, because the Capitals were awful for 55 minutes, and funny-ha ha, because they still won, 6-3, with a four-goal splash in only 2 minutes, 53 seconds.
Trailing, 3-2, outshot, 30-13, and "slowly getting more frustrated," according to Meehan, the Capitals suddenly exploded. The trigger was a perfect pass from Meehan, behind the St. Louis net, to Bill Riley, unguarded in front Riley whistled his second NHL goal past Doug Grant with 3:18 remaining, he and Meehan embraced, and the 13,346 fans canceled their early departure ot the Capital Centre parking lot.
The season's third largest gallery was back on its feet with 68 seconds to play. Guy Charron caromed a pass off the side boards to Hartland Monahan, who followed an unopposed path to the spot where he knocked the puck between Grant's legs for his 17th goal. It was the game winner.
Then Grant tried to clear the puck up ice and head for the bench to give St. Louis a sixth skater. But he put it on Ace Bailey's stick and that early game goat completely shed his horns by skating around the drifting goalie and netting his 12th goal.
That occured 32 seconds after Monahan's goal and Meehan provided the concluding smiles with his 12th score into an unguarded net after Grant finally succeeded, 11 seconds later, in reaching the bench.
While the Capitals rejoiced, St. Louis coach Emile Francis was shaking his head. In six visits to Capital Centre, four as boss of the New York Rangers and two as head man of the Blues, Francis has managed one tie and no victories.
"I think I'll stay away from Washington," Francis said, with only a trace of a smile.
On the other side of Capital Centre's basement, Washington coach Tom McVie gave his club a day off and commented, "It did look like it was a planned attack, put them to sleep for 55 minutes, then fly past them while nobody was watching."
Both teams had played Saturday night, the Capitals losing in Montreal and the Blues winning at home against Colorado. Probably as a result of those exertions, neither team was especially sharp in the early going. the Blues forced the play, however, and were in almost total control after Bob Sirois drove a backhander through Grant on the game's first shot at the 31 second-mark.
Gilles Marotte pulled St. Louis even at 1:18 on a blast from just inside the blue line and Ron Low must have felt the ice was topsy turvy as the action revolved around him for the next 11 minutes.
Washington managed its second shot at 12:30 and then, at 13:26, Charron accepted defenseman Bruce Affleck's giveaway in front of the St. Louise net and beat Grant for a 2-1 lead. It was Charron's 24th goal and gave added reason to celebrate both his 28th birthday today and his trip to Vancouver for Tuesday's NHL All-Star Game.
The Capitals had little to celebrate in the second period, as they were outshot 11-3 and escaped a fat deficit only through Low's acrobatics. Gerry Unger, alone in front at 7:36, produced the period's only score on a setup from Pierre Plante!
The Blues moved ahead at 8:18 of the third period, after Bailey lost control of the puck in front of his own net. Larry patey blasted a shot that hit Claude Larose's shoulder and deflected past Low.
Bailey shattered his stick in disgust and said later, "I wasn't feeling too good at that point. The puck rolled off the end of my stick and when I tried to get it to Bugsy [Watson] and - ooh!"
When the Capitals' power play failed to muster a shot on goal while Bob Gassoff served a two-minute hooking penalty. Washington's chances seemed minimal. However, as Bailey added, "The team doesn't give up."
Sirois and Meehan struggled to gain possession along the boards behind the St. Louis net and Riley clearly worked his way into the slot.
"I was surprised to be alone," Riley said. "I hollered to Gerry and he put it right on my stick. I shot right away. The secret up here, I think, is to get it away a little quicker."
"Billy was wide open, there was nobody within 15 feet of him," Meehan said. "I couldn't believe it. And he shot so hard, that net was bulging like the puck almost went through it."
Marotte, playing the left defense position, attempted to intercept Charron's pass toward Monahan and, when he failed, there was nothing between the 1975 intraleague draft and the St. Louis goalie.
"The defenseman went for the puck, and I skated to the outside and picked it off the wall," Monahan said. "I had him beaten so I was going to deke the goalie, but as I cut back to the inside I started to lose my edge. So I let it go right on the ice and it caught the inside of his pad and barely made it through."
On his clincher, Bailey said, "the goalie shot it up to somebody and I got in front of him. The goalie was starting out and I just went around him and put it in."
Riley, in addition to scoring the big third goal, used his body and fists to advantage in the first period. Gassoff had fired some racial insults at Riley, along with a couple of cheap shots, in the teams' meeting here Jan. 2, Riley obviously remembered.
On an early shift, Riley leveled Gassoff with a solid check at center ice. Later he rammed the defenseman against the board, a shot that inflamed Gassoff. He began punching Riley, who responded with some solid shots that had the crowd in an uproar.
Riley, wearing a helmet for the first time since he was called up from dayton, nevertheless needed repairs to an old wound over his left eye.
"He caught men with his stick," Riley said. "I just ran him into the corner and he started throwing his fists at me. Once I got up, I threw some, too."
Did Gassoff have anything to say this time?
"No, nothing," Riley said, and he smiled.
Riley had extra reason to smile about the fight, as Gassoff drew an extra two minutes for starting what he was unable to finish.
The game's first disturbance occurred after only 15 seconds, with Planteramming the Capitals' Blair Stewart into the boards and then swinging away. Stewart, enraged, needed extra persuation from linesman Will Norris before he cooled off.
The crowd was largely composed of children, as evidenced by long lines at the electronic games rather than the usual queues at the beer counters. So the noise level was a bit more than the game rated 55 minutes, then it blew the decible counter.
"A lot of guys didn't do a thing all night, and then they got going in the last five minutes," McVie said."The fans deserved a better game up to that time, but I guess they went away pretty excited.