The wandering Washington Capitals touch ground in Chicago tonight. If defenseman Gord Smith is given the opportunity, some of the Black Hawks figure to touch ice, with a bang.
Hockey is a contract sport, and few players make contact with more relish than the 5-foot-10, 1975-pounder from Perth, Ontario. Smith is a master of the hip check and cross-body check, maneuvers that turn speeding opponents into temporary flying objects.
At Boston's Logan Airport Monday, as they awaited their flight home, the Capitals discussed two subjects. One was their relative position during the 38-man dispute that followed the second period. The other topic was Smith's check that made Boston tough guy Terry O'Rielly resemble a cart-wheeling cheerleader.
Others whose Smith-induced crash landings are not readily forgotten include Gerry Hart of the New York Islanders, Rick Middleton of Boston and a quintet of Detroit Red Wings.
Smith's spectacular checks were a key part of Bernie Wolfe's shutout in Detroit Jan. 10. It is a reasonable assumption that a player racing down the ice who is dealt a hard check will be a slower skater the next time. Some defensemen try to hammer an opposing forward into the boards, but in the process they also remove them - the Smith method is that he is still available to pick up the puck.
"You can't do it all the time," Smith cautioned. "If I do miss them, they're in cold on the goalie. Some guys lately have been going wide, after giving the deke to go inside. In Detroit, they all went to the inside and if they go inside I've got them.
"When they're trying to make a deke to go around you, they're pulling themselves off balance and you just need a piece to throw them. If you catch them off stride, going fast, it does hurt more than the normal check. A hit at the blue link takes more out of you than a check somewhere else."
In the case of the O'Reilly maneuver, there was an added bonus. The Boston winger was so unhinged that, after rising, he made a quick search for vengeance, and was sent to the penalty box for elbowing Blair Stewart. Gerry Meehan scored on the ensuing power play.
"He got up a bit slow," Smith said. "I think he landed on his head. Most guys won't give you a hassle on a good, solid check. If it was a cheap shot, like using your stick or your knee, then they'll retaliate."
Only the spectacular nature of Smith's checking has been different this season. He has never hesitated to use his body against opposing forwards.
"I could always hit," Smith said. "This year they're coming my way and I've got my thing together."
Smith is the only Capital without a goal this season, a bit of a hard-luck statistic, since he has fired 52 shots on goal.
"I never had much trouble scoring before," Smith said. "But I'm playing better defensively and, after all, I don't think they brought me back here to score. As long as we're winning and keeping the goals out, that's the main thing."
The fourth-place Capitals enter tonight's game with a five-point bluge on Detroit. They trailed third-place Los Angeles by eight points before the Kings' game on Long Island last night.
"All the guys still have in mind to make the playoffs," Smith said. "If we win our games and let L.A. play theirs, we'll see what happens. We could very easily win in Chicago. In fact, we should beat them."
Tonight's game is Tom McVie's 100th as coach of the Capitals. He has a 26-61-14 record.
The Hawks, stumbling along in second place in that awful Smythe Division, have won both previous meetings with the Capitals by 5-4 scores. In each ease, Washington held a 3-1 lead after the first period . . . Bob Sirois' recuperation time is placed at two weeks, with torn ligaments and a mild separation of the right shoulder . . . Bob Paradise has a chipped bone in his foot . . . Bill Collins will play tonight despie a stiff neck. He took a hard jolt in Boston . . . Chicago, led by Pit Martin's 42 points, does not have anyone among the NHL's top 40 scorers . . . The Hawks are coached by Bill White, the steady defenseman of better season past.