The Washington Capitals sat in their hotels here today, watching gale-blown snow whistle past and wondering how they were going to reach snow-paralyzed Pittsburgh in order to play Saturday's night contest with the Penguins. They must also have wondered whether their season, for all competitives purposes, will be ending this weekend.
Just four games past the midpoint of their fourth NHL campaign, the Capitals are rapidly approaching lame-duck status. Pittsburgh and Detroit, where the Capitals are booked for Sunday afternoon contest, are the teams Washington must catch to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Today, each stood 12 points ahead of the Capitals.
To further dim their situation, the Capitals must play both games without defenseman Robert Picard, who suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand during Thursday's loss to Boston.
After the game, Picard thought he had merely jammed the hand in a third-period collision, but following an afternoon trek through the blizzard today, he learned from X rays that the bone was broken and the hand must be placed in a cast for about a month.
Despite the cast, Picard will be able to play once the swelling subsides. However the swelling and pain will prevent him from participating in the important weekend games.
"It's never just a bruise with us," said general manager Max McNab, who added that the Capitals would play with five defensemen rather than call up a replacement.
"They can't get much bigger than these games," said Washington coach Tom McVie "Pittsburgh and Detroit have our playoff spot. If we can't beat them, we don't deserve it."
After this weekend, opportunity is limited. The Capital will have only one game remaining against the Penguins and two against the Red wings.
Realistically, the way the Capitals have been playing, there is no reason for optimism. After a brief smell of success that brightened their holidays, the Capitals have slipped into another stretch of winless hockey, now extended through seven games.
Thursday night, the Boston Bruins were 4-1 winners, after outshooting Washington. 15-1, in an awful first period. It is obvious, and McVie acknowledges it, that the Capitals cannot defeat an upper-level NHL team that is making an all-out effort.
Rookie Jim Bedard, whose capable goaltending gave the club a lift in December, cannot do the job alone. Yet, except for the continued fine play of veteran Bryan Watson, Bedard was left virtually friendless Thursday night. In self-defense, Bedard took to wandering into corners and faceoff circles, and finally was burned far out of position as Boston's Bobby Schmautz iced the game with a short handed score.
The Capitals' brief success at having defensemen stand up at the blue line has been negated by speedy opposition forwards who repeatedly sail past on breakaways. Bedard stops a good percentage, but he can't stop them all, and on a team that has scored the fewest goals in the league, disaster is only a break away.
McVie has juggled his line in an attempt to generate some points, but any combination that does not include Guy Charron and Bob Sirois seems destined for failure. And most teams possess a good checking line that has been making it increasingly difficult for that pair to operate.
Opponents show no reluctance to risk penalties by roughing up Charron and Sirois. Washington's power play has succeeded only three times in its last 31 opportunities, while yielding two shorthanded goals, so the penalty box is no deterrent to intimidation.
In Pittsburgh, assuming they find a way to get there, the Capitals will be meeting the NHL's chief intimidator, Dave Schultz, who collected 28 minutes in penalties when the clubs last met at Capital Center, Jan. 2.
Another Penguin of note is right wing Jean Pronovost, who has amassed 299 NHL goals, 20 of them coming in 22 games against Washington. Pronovost has scored 13 goals in his last 12 games and had connected in seven straight until Atlanta's Dan Bouchard blanked the Penguins Wednesday.
Gary Smith, currently practicing with a small home guard of Capitals in Washington, has yielded 14 of Pronovost's goals, tieing with Los Angeles' Rogie Vachon inthe most-beaten category. Bernie Wolfe has been a victim nine times.
The contest will be televised by WDCA-TV 20 at 8 p.m., but he prepared for a change in plans. All public transportation to Pittsburgh was at a standstill today and another storm was reported heading for the city.