The Washington Capitals were entertained at the residence of Canadian Ambassador Peter Towe last night, a social occasion that marked the first truly pleasant experience for the team in 27 days.
Receipt of the invitation prompted one cynic to comment that perhaps the last-place club was being turned over to Towe for deportation. Cynicism comes quicker than optimism when a team has played 13 games without a victory.
A sense of anticipation accompanies the arrival of the Atlanta Flames for tonight's 7:30 Capital Centre engagement, however. It was in Atlanta, on Oct. 26, that the Capitals last celebrated victory, by a 6-2 score.
Coach Tom McVie, ("I've held more conferences with my players than Jimmy Carter has in Washington"), talked with the team again yesterday and reported. "I told them we've got to win a game and win right now, even if we have to cheat. There's never been a time when we needed to win a game more."
When it was suggested that he might be placing too much pressure on players already pressing noticeably. McVie replied. "That's not putting pressure on, that's just stating a fact."
McVie, met at length Monday night with owner Abe Pollin and team president Peter O'Malley. He said that no heat was applied, but "Mr. Pollin was concerned about our winning hockey games and wanted to know what he can do. It wasn't any special meeting.I just bumped into him."
McVie wants to recreate as closely as possible tonight the circumstances of that Oct. 26 game in Atlanta. Schedule maker Brian O'Neill has cooperated by forcing the Flames to play the night before, as they did last time, while the Capitals are rested, if not well.
Goalie Gary Smith, who earned his only victory as a Capital in Atlanta, will start tonight. And defenseman Rick Green, the outstanding player of that 6-2 contest, will be back in uniform, after missing the Capitals' last three games with strained ligaments in his right wrist.
"The trouble with the whole thing is Atlanta," McVie said. "After us going in there and beating them, they've got that on their mind. It won't be an easy task and anybody who thinks it will, he can ask (Atlanta coach) Fred Creighton."
Rookie Mark Lefthouse will replace injured Bill Riley at right wing on the Capitals' No. 1 line with Bob Sirois and Guy Charron. Sirois, who scored twice in Atlanta, missed yesterday's practice with a slight groin pull, but will play tonight. Charron, who suffered a broken nose Saturday, must wear a face shield for another 10 days.
"That mask's not too bad," Charron said, an ugly black welt under his left eye. "I find it hard when I'm looking for the puck and it's not like playing without a mask. The vision is definitely limited. But it could have been worse."
Charron conceded that the loss of Riley, with a cut tendon is his left ankle, was a severe blow, since Riley's digging had helped the line produce five goals in four games.
"We had something going," Charron said, "and it's unfortunate it had to stop that way, with a freak accident. All of a sudden we really came together. Things picked up and we were putting pressure on the opposition."
Left wing Nelson Burton will join the Capitals' surgery squad next week, when he will undergo an operation on his infected left elbow. It has not responded to treatment and Burton's penchant for banging everyone in sight apparently made things worse.
There remains the possiblity of a trade, although McNab's dinner date with the other general managers in Chicago Monday night produced no immediate results.