If there is a playoff plum awaiting the Washington Capitals in April, it may make its availability known tonight, when the Capitals open their fourth season against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Capital Centre at 7:30.
"It's a game in our division, against the team we're probably going to have to put out to make the playoffs," said coach Tom McVie. "It's important to get off to a good start and win for our fans."
Besides the playoff implications within the Norris Division, the game's importance is magnified by the difficulty presented by a peek into the immediate future. Of the Capitals' next six games, only one is at home, and that is against Stanley Cup champion Montreal.
Washington has enjoyed considerable success against Pittsburgh, winning five of the last seven meetings with another tied. So there is reason for optimism even beyond that generated by high spirit within the Capitals' camp.
(I'm pretty happy," McVie said. "We had a hell of a training camp, and everybody is ready to play."
Capital Centre fans will see defenseman Robert Picard, center Walt McKechnie and left wing Dave Forbes skating in Washington uniforms for the first time. Picard has a strained back muscle, but he was much improved after treatment yesterday and is expected to play, although a final test on skates is scheduled this morning.
"I told him he's got to play," McVie said. "The season's starting now and everybody's enthusiastic. We have to have everybody out there."
Left wing Craig Patrick will be the starting lineup after two difficult weeks of nursing a sprained right ankle.
"I've been skating with Tommy the last two days and if I can get through that, I guess I'm OK," Patrick said.
Defenseman Rick Green tested his right wrist in practice yesterday and seemed ready to go, although he must wear a brace for support.
"We're very optimistic that both Picard and Green will play," said general manager Max McNab, "but the doctor wants to take a look tomorrow. Picard didn't skate, but the rode 10 miles on the bike today and he ran, too. Green looked good in the workout. I'd say they're both 95 per cent to be out there."
The defensive pairings are uncertain, pending those last tests, but the lines are set for the opener. With some juggling motivated by the arrival of Forbes, they are also unfamiliar.
Forbes will skate alongside McKechnis and right wing Tom Rowe. Gerry Meehan will center Patrick and right wing Bill Riley.Guy Charron will have Ace Bailey on the left side and Bob Sirois on the right. That leaves Bill Collins and Ron Lalonde for penately killing, and Hartland Monahan in the press box.
"I think I'm more a right wing anyway," said lefthand shooter Sirois, who had spent most of the exhibition campaign on the left side.
Bernie Wolfe, the winning goalie in last year's 6.5 opening success against Atlanta, will be in the Washington nets tonight. Wolfe had an excellent training camp, posting a 2.78 goals against mark and showing new ability to pass the puck and challenge opposing forwards.
"I'm happy about starting," Wolfe said. "We have to get off to a good start. I was surprised last year, because Ronnie (Low) had a great camp and I was average. This year I had a better camp and I feel good physically. When I feel good, I have lots of confidence. I'm ready to start whenever Tommy asks - 40, 50 or 60 games.
"I think Smitty (Gary Smith) and I are going to be a good pair. It's not bitter competition for a job like in other sports. We'll be pulling for each other the way Ronnie and I did."
Smith will start Saturday night in Cleveland, in a game to be televised at 8 p.m., by WDCA-TV - 20.
McVie uses Smith as an example of the positive attitude that abounds among the Capitals.
"My son saw Smitty over at Bowie High School last night running around the track," McVie said. "A couple of years ago you couldn't have gotten Smitty to run in out of the rain."
Smith was not sharp during the early stages of camp, but he played well in a 4.2 exhibition victory at Pittsburgh and was so outstanding in Quebec Monday that a French newspaper headlined: "Du Grand Smith."T"I've worked as hard as I possibly can," Smith said. "I've lost 35 pounds since I started, and you tend to get a little weak. But I'm ready now."
New york Yankee manager Billy Martin doesn't think professional athletes need pep talks, but at the conclusion of yesterday's two-hour workout at Fort Dupont McVie gathered the team and said, among other things, "I hope you're ready. If you're not, I don't know what more I can do to get you there."
"I don't think in pro sports there's enough college rah-rah," said McVie, who uses martial music for inspiration before games. "If you feel good about something, tell the other guy."
The Capitals feel good about their playoff prospects.
Doroghy Benham, Miss American 1976 who sang the National Anthem a year ago, returns tonight. The Capitals won't have her support this time, however, since Pittsburgh defenseman Russ Anderson is an old boy friend . . . NHL president John Ziegler will also be in the crowd . . . The Capitals have cut defenseman Pete Scamurra, but he has not yet been reassigned . . . Tonight's game, like most of the Capitals' contests, will be broadcast by WTOP-1500 . . . McVie, looking for every edge, had his penately killers use sticks without blades while the team practiced the power play yesterday. It was to boost the morale of maligned power-play specialists Charron, Sirois, Riley, McKechnie and Jack Lynch . . . Former Capital defenseman Bob Paradise did not play in Pittsburgh's opening 4-2 victory over St. Louis.