Washington Capital hockey fans are prepared to greet two old friends when the Atlanta Flames visit Capital Centre tonight at 7:30.
Bill Clement onetime captain of the Capitals will be wearing No. 10 for the Flames, whose 12-2-2 record is the best in the National Hockey League.
And wearing No. 2 for the Capitals, if all goes well at this morning's workout, will be defenseman Jack Lynch, making his first appearance since he suffered torn ligaments in his right knee on Dec. 13.
"It's been 11 months plus one day - unbelievable," Lynch said. "It's like a year was taken right out of the middle of my life."
The doctor who examined Lynch in Vancouver, where he was injured when checked from behind by Hilliard Graves, said he had never seen a knee so badly torn. The odds were against Lynch's playing again, yet only once did he himself feel any doubt.
"There was a time there in early August, when I was getting into heavy skating, that I had pains now and then," Lynch said. "It was a nagging thing and it worried me. But Dr. (Pat) Palumbo told me I was probably trying to do too much, when I hadn't done much for so long.
"The knee feels good now. I'm starting to do a lot of things I could do before. I'm so glad to be playing again. I've been sitting around with all this nervous energy and no chance to let it go."
Lynch played two games at Hershey, suffered a pulled muscle behind the knee and was brought back here for observation. Returning to Hershey for three more games, he saw extra duty because of the Bears' penchant for picking up penalties and because of an injury to another defenseman.
"We played Rochester with four defensemen most of the game and the extra work, every other shifts, was good for me," Lynch said. "It gave me added confidence, too."
While Lynch is happy just to be playing. Clement is glad fate, in the form of Washington General Manager Max McNab. shuffled him to Atlanta in January 1976.
"Life is beautiful when you're winning," Clement said. "Even your clothes fit better. The taste of winning is really nice. It gives you a lot of confidence.
"When you get used to winning, you find that just losing one game upsets you. It's just plain distasteful. It's just the reverse of being with a team that loses a lot. Then you get excited about winning one."
Not only have the Flames been winning with regularity, they have been pouring pucks past opposition goalies. In their 16 games, the Flames have netted 75 goals, the league high while yielding only 43. Yet Clement claims Atlanta isn't really doing anything differently, and statistics back him up.
"Our coach (Fred Creighton) has told, us, and I have to agree with him, that we were more solid last year," Clement said. "We've just picked up where we left off. The real difference came between February and March, when we turned it around."
Sure enough, in their last 16 games last season, of which they lost three, the Flames scored exactly 75 goals and gave up 43.
After that great stretch drive, the Flames were bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs in two games by Detroit. They are still trying to forget that disaster, which extended their record of never winning a playoff series.
"Maybe when the playoffs come around, that will become important in motivating us," Clement said, "but it's such a long season, you can't even think of the playoffs now. You have to seek motivation elsewhere, game by game.
"We just want to put ourselves in an advantageous position for the start of the playoffs. All four teams in our division are strong and I see an awful fight down to the wire. I just hope we're there. We've proven we're contenders and we feel capable of finishing first, but I'm sure the (New York) Islanders (New York) Rangers and (Philadelphia) Flyers feel the same way."
"The good thing we have going is that even when we're being outplayed we've been winning. It's like the first championship year with the Flyers, when we'd go into somebody else's building and get outshot, but still come up with a win."
Goalie Dan Bouchard, with a 2.63 goals-against mark, is the key to the Flames' success on foreign ice. Of his last 24 starts on the road. Bouchard has won 14, tied 6 and lost 4. Although Bouchard has played every game this season, there is a good chance that backup Yves Belanger will replace him tonight, against a struggling Washington club that has been shut out in its last two home games.
Capital fans who think the club's current plight bears resemblance to that awful year one are not far off the mark. In that first season, the Capitals averaged a meager 2.26 goals a game. Their current rate is 2.27. The last time Washington was blanked two in a row at Capital Centre was in the third and fourth home games of year one by the Islanders and Detroit.
Atlanta's Bob McMillan is the league's scoring leader with 10 goals and 24 points. Other blazing Flames are Guy Chouinard, with 22 points, and Tom Lysiak, 20. Little Bobby Lalonde has nine goals and Eric Vail and Willi Plett, seven each.
Clement, a penalty-killing expert, has five goals, two of which Washington fans will not quickly forget. He scored with 62 seconds left at Atlanta Oct. 13 to create a 3-3 tie and the following night at Capital Centre he opened the scoring as the Flames rolled to a 6-3 victory, igniting a 10-game winning streak that was the NHL's longest in five years.