The Pittsburgh Penguins visit Capital Centre tonight and Washington's Swedish center, Rolf Edberg, would relish a replay of their first visit, on Nov. 1. That was the night Edberg really joined the National Hockey League.
Edberg, left behind the week before while the team made a two-game western swing, returned to action with his first NHL goal and two assists and was chosen the No. 1 star as the Capitals whipped Pittsburgh, 6-4.
"When I first came to the team, he (Edberg) played adequate, but he seemed to tail off and I was a little disappointed," said Coach Danny Belisle. "I wondered if maybe the adjustment was too much. He's not a big guy. So I tried a few guys and then when I did bring him back, he was the No. 1 star and he's played well ever since."
"It was very good for me to have a rest for one week," Edberg said, his English improving along with his play. "I skated very hard for a week and Roger Crozier helped me. Maybe I think about the game when I rest, how I shall play, how I must play.
"I know before I come that it can be very tough for me to play here. I try to play like at home and change my style a little, learn to know small-ler ice. In the beginning, maybe I was a little careful about the hitting. When I stopped thinking about that, I played my game better."
Although assigned new linemates almost every game and forced to play the unfamiliar left-wing position more often than center, the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Swede has been Washington's most effective player over the last 2 1/2 weeks. In the last nine games, Edberg has collected three goals and six assists while hustling back on defense with such spirit that his performance rating has risen to 5, best on the team.
"We had six centermen and I had to play somebody out of position, so I played him out of position quite a bit," Belisle said. "But he was restricted somewhat on the wing. He's a free-wheeling guy, he handles the puck well and he passes well. Center is his natural position."
"I am always a center, even as a young player," Edberg said. "He told me in a game to go on left wing and I say 'Ah?' Then I say 'OK.' It was very difficult to play in our zone, but I like it more and more to play wing. It's not so bad. I just never tried it before."
One area where Edberg recognizes a deficiency is in arm strength. In Sweden, hockey players practice all but two weeks of the year, but emphasis is on skating and he has not used weights before.
"Next summer, I must run and do weights," Edberg said. "I must be stronger in the arms. If I get a chance to get a goal here, I must be stronger. If I take a long time to think what to do with the puck, then will come somebody's stick."
Edberg's patience and stickhandling ability did set up two of the Capitals' more memorable scores of this season. Against Atlanta, he maintained possession a long time, even regaining his own rebound before feeding Rick Green for the goal that tied it at 7-7, Tom Rowe providing the game-winner later. Against Boston, Edberg deked both defenseman Mike Milbury and goalie Gerry Cheevers before feeding Bob Girard for the game-tying goal in a 5-5 game.
"I try to pass when first I come," Edberg said "But I get no goal, no chances at all. I must shoot more. Every team brings over the red line, then puts it in and there is no chance to pass. I look for the wings to pass and all I get is offside."
Many American fans would prefer the skillful passing of the Swedish national team to the NHL's dumping tactics, but Edberg must conform, because virtually everyone's system is based on dump and chase, and because the smaller North American rinks do not permit room for such playmaking skills.
"The ice is much bigger at home," Edberg said, "especially behind the goals. It is nearly double there and the goalie cannot block the puck as much as he does here."
Edberg, now 28, was given his first ice skates at 5 and began playing with an organized team at 12. He is a native of Stockholm, which until recently possessed just one indoor rink.
"We play outdoors most of the time," Edberg said. "It was sometimes very cold and sometimes in winter it would get hot and there would be no ice and no game. The indoor rink was for the use of A.I.K., the big team, and youngsters could only play at bad hours, late at night."
Edberg quit school at 16, but it was not until two years later that he chose a career in hockey, with that same A.I.K. team, over his other favorite sport, soccer, where he played, characteristically, center forward and center halfback.
"I get my nine years of school and that's enough," Edberg said. "For many in Sweden, hockey and school is a good combination, but I have no interest to go into school. I like soccer very much, but I choose hockey when I am invited to play in the first league."
Swedish hockey salaries force a family man to work, so after Edberg married he became involved with a partner in a company that installs carpets. It provides a better income than hockey, since Edberg last year received only $5,000 from A.I.K. and $4,000 from the Swedish national team.
Like other Swedish stars, he was receptive to offers from the NHL. When Arne Stromberg, the Capitals' European representative, asked him at the world championships in Praque whether he would like to play in North America, Edberg replied that he would, but that he did not want to come over by himself.
"It is a very big thing in Sweden to play in the NHL," Edberg said. "Fourteen days after I return to Sweden, Stromberg tells me the Washington Capitals are interested in me and Leif Svensson, too. After that, everything happened very fast.
"Leif called me at home and told me he would come. Then I think about it one week. I have to see about the family, because the kids must go to school. I check up what I can and I listen to the embassy. They say Washington is a good town to live in. So I come.
"The toughest thing was training camp, three weeks away from my family. And I hurt my legs. Stefan Persson had the same problem, so it must be the stops and starts. We have not so much stops and starts in Sweden.
"It was tough at first, but I like it more and more. My whole family likes it. Everything is just great now."
Asked if anyone had tried to challenge him to fight, Edberg said, "Not yet." Asked about verbal taunts, he replied, "Not yet."
As he earns a reputation for superior play, Edberg knows the challenges from the goons will come. One can only hope they do not upset his smooth skating style. He has already shown that legal checks will not hinder him and, thus far, has given as much physically as he has received.
As his English improves, Edberg figures to become even more comfortable playing here. It is already good enough for normal communication on the ice.
"He has a little trouble with the language, but it's no problem," Belisle said. "Anything we're talking about that has to do with hockey, he knows it in any language."