The Washington Capitals did not yield a power-play goal during their three games last week. It is no coincidence that the Capitals did not lose last week, either.
Early in the season, when the Capitals were struggling, opponents utilized the extra-man situations to the fullest. So ineffective was Washington's penalty killing that it still ranks next to last in the Nhl/, above only Colorado, despite recent success that has foiled 12 straight opposition power plays.
Washington has been victimized for 46 extra-man goals, or 27.5 percent of the opportunities presented by Capitals' penalties. Only Colorado, with 30 percent, is worse, and the more favorable figures extend up to the minimal yield of 17.8 percent by Montreal.
"There is no question that our penalty killing has been erratic." said Washington Coach Danny Belisle. "Smitty (Gord Smith) and Dennis (Maruk) have had their problems, but they're going good now and they are even a threat at the other end."
A philosophy of offensive penalty killing enabled the frequently sentenced Philadelphia Flyers to overcome their case of the shorts and win two Stanley Cups. Smith and Maruk have the same attitude.
"We force the other team in their end," Smith said. "I'll make a sweep and Dennis will make a sweep and if we knock it off their sticks once or twice, we'll kill another 15 or 20 seconds. Some teams just have the penalty killers skate their wings up and down, but we like the other approach.
"It's no good to have one guy forechecking and the other guy hanging back. That leaves one side of the rink open all the time and you get caught. The way we play, both are skating hard.
"It helps that I'm playing with one of the best penalty killers in the league. Dennis is super at it. He's a great forechecker, he anticipates so well. If I get it, I sort of look around for Dennis to put it away."
"Smitty and I and the two defensemen (Robert Picard and Rick Green) have just clicked the last few games," Maruk said. "We're not giving them many shots. It's like tic tac toe. He forechecks, or I forecheck and the other one is ready to follow up."
It is fortunate that the Capitals' penalty killing is on a hot streak, because tonight in Detroit (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30 p.m.) a Washington team that ranks third in the NHL with 854 penalty minutes faces the team with the most power-play goals, 49.
Additionally, the Red Wings are usually presented frequent opportunities against the Capitals, because the teams invariably rough it up and spend considerable time in the penalty box.
Their last meeting, at Capital Centre Jan. 19, produced a postgame brawl and the highest total of penalty minutes, 112, in any Washington game this season. A 1977 melee resulted in a combined 127 minutes, highest in the Capitals' history, while a 1976 battle saw the Wings serve 83 minutes, a record for a Capitals' opponent.
Smith's transformation from fill-in defenseman to No. 1 penalty killer occurred in early December, when Belisle was ready to try anything to get the team untracked. General Manager Max McNab recalled that Smith had killed penalties up front in the American League and Belisle figured he had nothing more to lose at that point.
Smith was an original expansion draftee, plucked from the Los Angeles roster although he had never participated in an NHL game. Tonight he will play his 282nd as a Capital and, if the recent personnel pattern continues, he will tie idle Ron Lalonde for the most games played in a Washington uniform. Ironically, Lalonde once was considered the Capitals' best penalty killer.
"I don't really look at it in terms of games played," Smith said. "It's just so far removed from that first year. I just think back to how awful it was -- that first year was the worst I'd ever seen. It was tough.
"Now we've got so much more unity with guys like Ryan Walter, who are super team players. And the way Greener and Pic are playing, they've matured and they're just coming into their own.
"And the way Gary (Inness) is playing. We've never had goaltending like we're getting now. It gives you so much of a lift when you see a goaltender making those big saves.... If he keeps playing like that, we have a hell of a shot at the playoffs."
Assuming, of course, that the penalty killers continue to silence the opposition.
Defenseman Leif Svensson, out of action since Jan. 14 with a sprained left ankle, will dress tonight... Although Sunday's 2-2 tie with Toronto prevented the Capitals from recording an unprecedented fifth straight victory, they have matched the year-old team mark of going unbeaten through five games...Washington has posted two victories and two ties in its four previous meetings with the Red Wings... The Capital Centre ice looked just fine at yesterday's optional workout -- 12 hours too late to avert an embarrassing series of delays for repair... Inness is NHL player of the week, by poll of the Pro Hockey Writers Association; second Capital to win the honor (Gerry Meehan was the other two years ago).