The Washington Capitals, their physical and mental well-being restored by 10 days away from the NHL wars, return to meaningful action tonight in Denver against their expansion cousins, the Colorado Rockies.
The contest is the start of a testing four-game road trip, with the remainder reading like a who's who of play-off-bound teams -- Montreal on Saturday, New York Rangers on Sunday, Atlanta on Tuesday.
"If we can play.500 on this trip, I'll be very pleased," said Coach Danny Belisle. "We've got 26 games to go and we'll play each one at a time like it was the last one. In the back of our minds is that playoff spot, but we have to win our own share and not worry about what happens if this team beats that team, or whatever.
"This is a tough February. We have to hang in this month, pick up our share of points and make our run in March."
Twenty players -- 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies -- flew to Denver last night. One player must sit out each game, because only 19 may dress.
Left behind were defensemen Gord Smith, assigned to Hershey of the American Hockey League, and Bryan Watson, who has not played since Dec. 23 and did not practice yesterday.
"Hershey has four games in the next week and we felt it was best that Smitty keep active," said General Manager Max McNab. "We are in the midst of discussions with Bryan on what is best for him."
On the last visit to Denver in December, the Capitals bounced back from a 10-2 loss in Los Angeles the previous night to beat the Rockies, 4-1. A week later, the Rockies were 4-3 winners at Capital Centre, evening the all-time series at 8-8-2.
Colorado returned to action Tuesday, losing on Long Island, and McNab said, "They're fortunate to get the one game in. If there was any loss of sharpness, that will get their game sharp. I'm curious to see what the outcome of the layoff will be. I've sat around in the playoffs waiting for another round to end, but I've never experienced this in the midst of the season before."
The players were pleased with the opportunity to relax and nurse the bumps and bruises that had accumulated during four months of play.
"It gets guys who had little injuries all season a chance to get rid of them," said winger Bob Sirois. "Some guys were playing 40 to 45 minutes a game and they needed a few days off.
"It's kind of a new season. It came at the right time before the big rush for the playoffs. It's not like coming back from summer vacation. The guys don't lose their shape."
Sirois, onetime junior skiing champion in his native Montreal, returned to the slopes in the Laurentians for "some easy Alpine skiing, with no danger of getting hurt."
Rookie Ryan Walter came back from Florida with a good catch of tarpon and cobia and a face peeling from sunburn.
"I just went home and relaxed," said Massachusetts native Tom Rowe. "It was good, but now we've been practicing five days and we're ready to play. I'm not used to so much practice except in training camp."
Happier than most about the time off was defenseman Leif Svensson, whose sprained left ankle has been a nagging problem.
"It really came at a good time for me," Svensson said. "It's still stiff sometimes, like a temporary problem. It will go away for a while. We had ice from Wednesday on and I took advantage of it."
Dennis Hextall, former Detroit center acquired as a free agent during the break, worked on a line with Bob Girard and Mark Lofthouse at yesterday's practice.
Tonight's game will not be relayed by radio or television. The Montreal and Atlanta games are scheduled for telecasts by WDCA-TV 20.