It came down to the goaltenders. Gary Inness and Tony Esposito, at Capital Centre yesterday and the chants of "Ga-ree, Ga-ree" from the season's largest crowd of 14,968 saluted the winner.
Inness stopped 30 Chicago shots and lost a shutout only on a late-game skate deflection as the Washington Capitals whipped the Chicago Black Hawks, 4-1, for a fourth straight victory that tied the club record.
Esposito, the all-star who leads all NHL active goaltenders with 65 shutouts, did a marvelous job at the other end, blocking 28 shots. He was beaten by his defense's failure to clear the puck from in front, as Ryan Walter, Guy Charron and Greg Polis scored from close range.
Dennis Maruk, sensational in killing six penalties without damage, served his familiar role as the club's victory cigar by banging in his third emptynetter of the season after Esposito was lifted for a sixth forward.
"Gary just outgoaltended Tony O and Tony O played a great game," said Washington Coach Danny Belisle, whose postgame interview was relegated to a dim corner because the TV folks took over everything else.
"If they'd put me out here in November I'd have been worried," joked Belisle, whose team has climbed into playoff contention with six victories in its last seven games. "All I have to do these days is keep a needle to deflate heads if they get too big. The job is only about one-tenth as difficult when you're winning."
Judging by the fans' enthusiasm, it is 10 times more fun to watch, although things started quietly as a scoreless first period ended the Capitals' string of scoring in 11 straight periods.
Walter ended the stalemate at 3:16 of the second period, on the Capitals' fifth power-play opportunity. Maruk deflected a Picard shot in front of the net and Walter poked the loose puck past Esposito to become the first Capital to reach 20 goals this season. Maruk quickly dug out the puck and presented it to Walter.
"It means something because we won," Walter said of his milestone. "But I never set a goal for myself in the beginning and it's not as if I reached one and could push it away. I'm just glad to contribute, whether it's by throwing a check, blocking a shot or scoring a goal."
Walter had set up the power play by carrying the puck into the right-wing circle. where he was hooked by Phil Russell.
Guy Charron's 17th goal made it 2-0 at 13:30. Blair Stewart made the play, skating from the right-wing circle into the slot as the defense faded away in his path.When he finally elected to shoot from the slot, Esposito and defenseman Doug Hicks dove at him, leaving both Charron and the net open for the score.
"At first I was going to shoot from way out," Stewart said, "but I saw Ryan and I thought maybe I could pass. I moved to the middle and I was really surprised that everybody moved out of the way. I didn't get that good a snot, but it left Guy open."
Just before the second period ended, Inness let everybody know that this was Washington's day. Cliff Koroll, set up the slot by a Stan Mikita pass, fired a drive toward the upper corner on Inness' glove side. The goalie swept his arm up and batted the puck away, leaving Koroll staring at the ceiling.
"It was just a reflex," Inness said. "I saw the shot coming and I was moving in that direction and I just threw my glove up.He shot high and it caught the glove."
Early in the third period a Maruk pass from the corner was blocked by defenseman Dave Logan, but the puck skipped in front to Polis, who netted his own rebound.
"The puck was hanging in my skates and I poked it to my backhand on the open side," Polis said. "I couldn't believe Esposito stopped that shot. But then I got it on my forehand and lifted it over him."
Fans and players were thinking shutout the rest of the way, but that prospect disappeared with 2:13 to play when Ivan Boldirev's centering pass from the left-wing corner struck the skate of defenseman Yvon Labre and caromed past Inness.
Inness, who joined the Capitals Dec. 18 after the World Hockey Association Indinapolis franchise collapsed, thus was relegated to his fifth one-goal game with Washington. An even closer bid for his first major-league shutout since November, 1974, had ended in the last minute at Detroit Jan. 6.
"We got the two points and that's what we came out here for," Inness said. "The score is irrelevant."
Inness, helped to rebuild the threegoal lead with a long clearing pass that Maruk picked up and carried into the empty net.
Inness was playing in his 13th straight game. He has sat out only one since joining the Capitals and he will be back in the net tonight when Toronto visits Capital Centre for a 7:30 contest.
"I'm tired right now and I'm going to savor this win for a couple of hours," Inness said. "Then I'll start to think about tomorrow night. The schedule has been pretty favorable and this is only the second time we've played back to back since I came here. You just have to put tatigue in the back of your mind."
And let those "ga-ree, Ga-ree" chants keep you on a high.
A lot of things have been going right for the Washington Capitals lately. One move that went wrong was relegated to old business yesterday when right wing Michel Bergeron was given a contract settlement and an unconditional release.
Bergeron scored seven goals in 30 games. But he never fit in with his teammates, who scorned his one-way style of play and referred to him as "Chicken."
Oddly, Bergeron's most memorable moment as a Capital came in his last game, when he belted the New York Islanders' Bert Marshall in the mouth with a left hook, inflicting a 10-stitch cut.
The cost of the Bergeron experiment was a second-round amateur draft choice, delivered to the Islanders in October.