The Washington Capitals blew out the candles on defenseman Gord Smith's birthday cake a day early yesterday. Smith, who will be 29 today, was shipped to Hershey of the American Hockey League and will not be around for brother Billy and the New York Islanders' visit to Capital Centre at 7:30 tonight.
Along with canceling the Smith brothers' special reunion, the Capitals hope to terminate the Islanders' record of never having lost to Washington. There have been three ties in 20 meetings.
The Islanders, whose defense has been somewhat suspect this season, always tighten up on the road and their performances at Capital Centre have been outrageous. Of eight games here, the Islanders have won seven, five of them shutouts.
Billy Smith earned the first shutout ever at Capital Centre but Chico Resch has collected the last four, including 6-0 and 4-0 victories in the two visits last season.
The Capitals, trying to forget history and start from scratch, in accord with owner Abe Pollin's orders, ended another jinx Wednesday and built a two-game winning streak for the first time this season when they finally won in Minnesota. They were confident the Islander's stranglehold will be the next to slip.
"I think we have a really good shot against the Islanders the way we're playing now," said right wing Tom Rowe, the Capitals' leading goal scorer with eight. "A win on the road gives you a great feeling. We should come out flying Friday night.
"We've got a good feeling among the guys in the room. We're gaining confidence. The young guys are beginning to do things. And I'm doing things I wasn't doing last year."
Coach Danny Belisle continues to do things none of the Capitils expect. For example, in Minnesota he used Robert Picard on left wing for defensive purposes late in the game with the Capitals protecting their 3-2 lead. Pete Scamurra seeing two "defensemen" on the ice returned to the bench and only a friendly wave from a linesman prevented Washington from shorthanded.
"I told Pic to play the wing, but I neglected to tell Samurra," Belisle said. "It's okay. Things like that keep the players awake and asking questions. I like that."
Belisle likes Smith, too, and commented that "they guy will go through the Zamboni for you." At 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds Smith has found some of the more sizable opposition players difficult to move and General Manager Max McNab wants to give bigger men Scamurra, Gord Lane and Jack Lynch an extended look.
"Smitty is down for only 14days," McNab said. "Hershey is playing three games this weekend and four next week, so he'll be playing regularly. We like him, but we do have to give a better assessment to some of the guys who are playing, and inactivity is not his cup of tea."
Smith played in 159 games over the last two seasons, missing the other because of his father's death. He is an original Washington expansion draftee.
The Islanders are unbeaten at home, only 2-3-1 on the road . . . Resch has a 3.06 goals against mark, Billy Smith 4.17 . . . The Islanders have connected on 34 percent of their power plays, best record in the NHL . . . Defenseman Denis Potvin leads New York in scoring with 19 points . . . The Capitals will practice at the Naval Academy's Dahlgren Hall rink Sunday afternoon at 12:30 . . . Paul Mulvey tried to helmet for one shift Wednesday, then discarded it "because I get a greater feeling of freedom without it."