They played in Madison Square Garden tonight, so most of the 17,412 fans loudly saluted the Rangers' Phil Esposito. Had they played in Capital Centre, where Esposito tops the most-hated-visitor list, everybody would have been praising the Capitals' Greg Polis.
Each was a hero of giant proportions as the Rangers and the Capitals struggled to a 6-6 tie. Esposito posted his 30th NHL hat trick, adding to his won record, and reached the 30-goal mark for the 12th straight season. His third goal gave New York a 6-5 lead at 6:41 of the third period and inspired the crowd to toss hats onto the ice.
Polis, dealt to the Capitals by New York on Jan. 15 for a token $100, marked his return to Madison Square Garden with two goals and the assist that enabled Rolf Edberg to tie the game with 5:45 remaining.
The emotion obvious as he spoke, Polis said after the racehorse contest, "I do feel a little bit extra coming in here. I don't think I was given a chance here at the start of the season. Washington has given me a chance and I hope I can take advantage of it.
"What's great about this dressing room -- you can tell by the guys -- is that nobody's going to look at the Washington Capitals like an automatic two points. We came in here, playing our third game in four nights, after flying 2,500 miles, and we were really moving out there."
Both teams swept up and down the ice from start to finish in a game that needed only sudden-death overtime to be a spectator's dream. There were ample mistakes on both sides and some shabby goaltending by New York's John Davidson, who drew derisive cheers for any routine save after missing four of the Capitals' first seven shots in the second period.
Washington's Gary Inness, playing in his 21st straight game, was not up to par, either. He started the game with a bruised left shoulder and bruised left arm, the latter suffered in the warmup before Saturday's 2-0 loss at Montreal. By game's end, he was holding an ice pack to a bruised right bicep and said, "At least the opposition did this one."
Bob Sirois scored first to put the Capitals ahead with his 23rd goal, but Esposito matched it and Don Murdoch, a five-point man tonight, gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead with his first goal in the Garden since completing his 40-game suspension for drug possession.
Bob Girard's second goal in 20 games made it 2-2, then Polis stole the puck from Ranger defenseman Carol Vadnais at the red line and blasted a shot through Davidson from the left-wing circle.
After the Rangers' Ron Duguay tied it, Polis beat Davidson with a 40-foot power-play blast, as Vadnais screened his own goalie. It was Polis' 10th goal in 13 games as a Capital.
Robert Picard earned his second assist of the night in setting up Polis and reached the 50-point mark. A year ago, he finished with 37.
Steve Vickers brought New York into a 4-4 tie, but Ryan Walter's 24th goal sent Washington back in front before the second period ended.
Esposito quickly turned the game around once more. Exchanging passes with Murdoch, he broke past defenseman Gord Lane and was able to deflect Murdoch's return pass under Inness.
As Washington's Yvon Labre and the Rangers' Don Maloney wrestled in front of Inness, Esposito took Mario Marois' pass and held the puck until Inness flopped to the ice, then flipped it over the goalie for his 664th career score.
Although the momentum belonged to New York, Polis was not ready to concede. He split the Ranger defense and fed Picard in front, but Davidson made a remarkable save. Undaunted, Polis made a backhand pass from the right-wing boards to Edberg in front and the Swede did not miss.
"It was a strange game, in the sense that all the goals were caused by opponents' mistakes," said Washington Coach Danny Belisle. "There'd be a glaring mistake and bang -- it was in the net. I'm pleased to come in here and grab a point. That team was moving, but we're playing hockey with the best of them."
Folks who regard numbers as something special would have considered it a strange game, too. Esposito collected his 30th hat trick and his 30th goal of the season on the Rangers' 30th shot of the game.
Belisle praised the 36-year-old Esposito as well as his own team.
"He just looked like the old Espo," Belisle said. "We gave him the zone too often. He's skating better than I've seen him the last two outings. He's awful tough around the slot."