The Washington Capitals are halfway through the season and the only disparaging words on the subject of rookie Ryan Walter have come from distraught opponents who have found themselves staring at ceilings. Everybody connected with the National Hockey League is unanimous in the belief that Walter is an excellent hockey player.
Walter's debut was delayed until Oct. 25 because of preseason surgery on his left knee. Just as he was reaching full stride, that same knee was badly bruised on Nov. 14. A month later, in Boston, he suffered pulled muscle around the rib cage in an encounter with Mike Milbury, and Walter still plays with his ribs tightly wrapped.
Despite these handicaps -- the injuries have obviously affected his skating -- Walter has amassed 11 goals and 14 assists in 29 games. He never has avoided body contact, instead seeking it out in a self-propelled attempt to make the Capitals fly. Now, at last, he is ready to skate at full speed.
"My ribs still get taped and padded," Walter said, "but it's a lot better than it was. It's not bothering me to any high degree. I'm finally ready to play up to my expectations."
Walter has been compared to Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke in his hustle, style and orneriness. Fans at Capital Centre tonight can see for themselves, since the Flyers are 7:30 guests. If there is a resemblance, Walter says it is not because of conscious imitation.
"I used to enjoy watching the Flyers play on TV because of their system," Walter said. "My junior coach, Harvey Roy, was a scout for Philadelphia and literally stole their system, their way of thinking and their philosophy. I think the (Fred) Shero system is a fine-tuned way of playing hockey.
"My style of play isn't fashioned after anyone, though. It just came along. My father always told me to take the body, because if you do that guy cannot get back in the play."
Saturday night in Detroit Walter flattened the Wings' Errol Thompson, swiping the puck and setting up the Capitals' first goal in a 4-1 victory. Sunday in Chicago his devastating checks on the Hawks' Bob Murray enticed Murray into a retaliatory high stick that gave Washington a power-play opportunity.
Walter does not pick easy targets. Among the men he has dumped with hard, clean checks are Milbury, Larry Robinson of Montreal, Ron Stack-house of Pittsburgh and Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin of the New York Islanders.
Potvin reacted first with disbelief, then with anger. Walter, according to a teammate, stared him down with the remark, "What's the matter, buddy, can't you take a good check?" Potvin skated away.
"The biggest thing is to get things started," Walter said of his penchant for body contact. "In Detroit we started early taking the body and it gave everybody a lift. It lifts all the guys, even the bench. It's like a good goal. And I think you gain a lot of respect through a good body check."
Walter does not hesitate to place himself in front of the opposition goaltender, either. He frequently deflects shots from the point yet, unlike buffeted teammate Tom Rowe, he is not worked over by opposing defensemen and goalies.
"Maybe I hide better," Walter said, laughing. "Actually, I don't know how that happens. I suppose my turn will come. I like going to the net and you can't do that for long without paying a price."
Greg Carroll, placed on irrevocable waivers by the Capitals Thursday, was claimed by Detroit for the $100 transfer fee... It will take five or six days, until the swelling goes down, to determine the extent of the damage to defenseman Pete Scamurra's left knee... Defenseman Rick Green is considered "possible" for tonight's game... Bernie Parent will be in the Philadelphia goal. He left Saturday night after 20 minutes with a bruised collarbone, then returned Sunday to shut out Los Angeles.