The Washington Capitals left Boston yesterday with a 15-game winless streak and no evidence of potential relief. The team returns to action tonight in Toronto (WTOP-1500 at 8), where it dropped a 5-2 decision just 10 days ago.
General manager Max McNab reported no personnel changes following Thursday's 6-0 loss to Boston, but he dined last night with Toronto general manager Jim Gregory, "just in case."
The Maple Leafs have posted an impressive 11-4-2 record and, after several years as an also-ran, are battling for the Adams Division lead under rookie coach Roger Neilson.
Neilson, long-time instructor of the Peterborough, Ontario, juniors, moved into pro hockey last year with Dallas of the Central League and was selected to replace Red Kelly in Toronto in August.
Ron Lalonde, the Capitals' defensive specialist, played for Neilson at Peterborough and has long admired his teacher.
"I'm surprised it took so long for somebody to have enough confidence in him to put him in pro hockey," Lalonde said. "He's a very disciplined type of coach. He was teaching in Peterborough and it wasn't worth it to him to go to some small minor-league town.
"Roger started out managing baseball, and I think he liked baseball more than hockey. There are more things to think about in baseball, more strategy than in hockey. Roger was always looking for a little edge. He had a dog and sometimes he would get it to walk on the field if he was looking for a break in the action.
"He's been responsible for several rules changes in hockey. Late in one game, when he had two men in the penalty box, trying to protect a one-goal lead with the other team two men up, as soon as the puck was dropped he would send out another player. As soon as somebody touched the puck, there would be another penalty, and he did that five or six times and killed off the last minute and a half. Now the rules call for a penalty shot if you do that.
"And when the other team would get a penalty shot, he would put (defenseman) Ron Stackhouse in the nets. When a guy would skate over the blue line, Stackhouse would charge the guy. He blocked four or five that way. Then they changed the rule and said it had to be a goal tender."
Neilson was loudly booed in the Montreal Forum Nov. 12, when he yanked goalee Mike Palmateer for a sixth skater with 30 seconds left and Toronto trailing, 5-0.
"I was trying to avoid the shutout, of course," Neilson explained, "but mostly I wanted to show that we're a team that gives it all we've got. We wanted to show everyone that we don't quit. We battle right to the end no matter what the circumstances might be."
That attitude does not help the victory quest of the Capitals, who won three of five last season from a Toronto team that wasn't working nearly so hard. Also to be remembered is the Capitals' lifetime record in Maple Leaf Gardens - eight games, eight defeats.
The most memorable loss came in year one, when the Capitals were beaten after leading by a goal with 90 seconds left. But nobody is forgetting the 10-0 defeat on Feb. 12, either.
"We had a big improvement last year, getting 62 points," said Washington defenseman Jack Lynch, "but when I went home to Bracebridge last summer, all the people remembered was Toronto beating us 10-0, not that we beat them three out of five. I was quick to point that out.
"In Ontario there's hockey and there's the Toronto Maple Leafs. I have so many friends and family here, and I'll probably end up living here. It's frustrating not to be able to beat the Leafs."
These days, it is even more frustrating not to be able to beat anyone.