Two and a half weeks ago, after a 5-5 tie with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Capitals had stormed to within six points of the Los Angeles Kings and the third playoff spot in the National Hockey League's Norris Division. However, a 7-2 loss to the Kings on the first stop of a six-game trip put the Capitals eight behind the West Coast team.
Despite a disastrous finish to that road fling, the Capitals, for a scant three hours Tursday night, had crept back to within six points of the Kings following a 3-3 tie with the Minnesota North Stars at Capital Centre. "And we've got two more games with the Kings," Capital coach Tom McVie noted with pleasure.
But when the results from Inglewood, Calif., reached Washington early yesterday morning, the Kings again had an eight-point bulge, thanks to a 3-0 decision over the New York Islanders.
And McVie cannot afford to look ahead to the next meeting with the Kings, March 1 at Capital Centre, because he has six other games before them, starting tonight in Bloomington, Minn., when Washington and the North Star play their final match of the season in another one of those frequent quirks of the NHL schedule that pits teams in an immediate home-home series. The teams are now 1-1-1 this year.
Perhaps with that immediate rematch in mind, McVie diplomatically said, "Minnesota played good enough for a tie" Tuesday, but it was obvious he thought his team should have won.
One Capital who will not be going to Bloomington is defenseman Jean Lemieux, who instead is traveling East back to Springfield of the American Hockey League. Lemieux's exit was rpecipitated by the play of defenseman Bob Paradise, who excelled in the checking department in his first game back from injury Tuesday.
McVie was pleased with the physical nature of the game the Capitals play. "It was conditioning," said the coach who put his team through two workouts Monday following the return from successive 9-2 and 10-0 losses. "If you feel strong, you're going to skate around and run into people."
One Capital who was running into people Tuesday night was Blair Stewart and, in a night of otherwise even play, the feisty winger won a clearcut decision over North Star defenseman Dennis O'Brien in the game's only fight. It was probably the most impressive victory in a fight-filled career for Stewart.
The battle was also the second embarrassment for O'Brien, who can be excused if he has his Irish, dander up tonight. Earlier, O'Brien and a teammate were holding the puck safe against the boards to the left of goalie Gary Smith. Hartland Monahan of the Capitals alertly skated awya from the play and made certain the officials saw what was happening. Referee Gregg Madill called a delay-of-game penalty on O'Brien.
That penalty and a call on Steve Jensen 16 seconds later gave the Capitals a two-man advantage for 1 minute 44 seconds. They failed to score during that span, but O'Brien had just stepped out of the penalty box and not yet become a factor on the ice when Guy Charron scored the game-tying goal for the Capitals.
It was the 30th of the season for Charron, who now also hold the Captial team record for total points - 59. He broke the record set by Tommy Williams in Washington's initial season and Williams was on hand Tuesday night to see his record go by the boards.