The New York Rangers bring the National Hockey League's 11th best record into Capital Centre tonight at 7:30 for the contest that produced flurries of icy words after it was snowed out three weeks ago.
The Rangers probably will get a Stanley Cup playoff berth, their first since 1975, even though the New Yorkers are red-faced last in the Patrick Division. That situation was created by the wild-card playoff setup known as the Ranger Rule, for which the hopeful Washington Capitals cast the deciding vote last summer.
A year ago, the top three teams in each division qualified for the playoffs, which ruled out the Rangers. Now it's the top two, which takes a spot away from the sorry Smythe Division and hands it to someone more deserving.
One can't be sure how deserving the Rangers are, however, and that's where the red faces come in. Two Canadian newspapers polled player agents and club spokesman ptwo weeks ago and, although they disagreed on some details, the poll discovered that the Rangers, with a $2 million-plus payroll, are among the top five franchises in salary, with Phil Esposito, Walter Tkaczuk and Wayne Dillon mamong the NHL's top 10 check endorsers.
That much money for a No. 11 performance leaves something of a gap, and just wait until next year. When Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson join up, New York will be No. 1 in the dollar department. The folks at Capital Centre know they're getting proper value for Capital expenditure; last, any way one looks at it.
Lest someone should scream foul, it must be pointed out that the payroll figures do not include 25 players receiving checks from the Capitals while performing in such nonprofitable locales as West Germany, Tulsa and Fort Wayne.
Also, lest someone be mistakenly optimistic, the Capitals are not likely to corral a couple of free-agent instant stars like Hedberg and Nilsson. Even if Washington were willing to put up the money, and team President Peter O'Malley says it is, superstars do not wish to become the targets for opposition checkers they would be assured of being with the Capitals. Even Mario Tremblay, a Montrealer far from superstar status, recently affirmed he would rather sell pizzas, or something, than become part of a Care package to Washington.
The collapse of the World Hockey Association would not be an instant boon to NHL have-nots, either. The only WHA player on whom Washington has a lien is Cincinnati center Buss Carroll. Most of the stars are claimed by older NHL teams, scoring leader Marc Tardif for example being a Montreal defector. "If the WHA folded, it would make more players available," said Washington General Manager Max McNab, "but the top players would just improve the clubs they belong to, and the latest expansion clubs have very little claim."
There is a possibility that stars like Tardif, after five years of WHA play, would take to the courts to seek freeagent status rather than meekly return to NHL masters. Then again, there is a possibility the WHA will not die. Just the other day, for example, talk surfaced of possible expansion into Seattle and San Francisco. That's the Barnum Rule.
Tonight's game is the first of three in three days for the Capitals, who visit Montreal tomorrow afternoon and entertain Detroit Sunday night. The only other time the Capitals played three in a row - a practice permissible only when a date must be changed - they were beaten 9-4 by Buffalo, 10-3 by Chicago and 7-2 by St. Louis in February, 1975.
There is no reason to expect much change three years later. The Capitals have been uninspiring this season, to use the kindest word possible.
"We're naturally as disappointed as we can possibly be in our overall production," McNab said before leaving to scout last night's NCAA playoff between Boston University and Wisconsin. "It's hard thing to pinpoint, the way some guys tailed off in the manner they did. The rest of the way we're going to find out the heart of some of these guys. We finished strong last year.If we could put together four or five in a hurry, we could still make it interesting."
That brought back memories of Danny Czark. Remember, in 1976, when Ozark said, "We're not out of it yet," after his Phillies had been eliminated?