It is written that statistics are for losers, so perhaps an excursion into numerology can shed some light on the dilemma of the Washington Capitals, losers once again after a month in the sun. Certainly, nobody connected with the team can explain the 1-7-1 record in February, 0-5 on home ice.
During that glorious 9-5-1 January, the Capitals outscored the opposition by 18-14 in the third period. This month, Washington has been overwhelmed, 16 to 5, in the final 20 minutes.
"The team has ben forcing the play in an effort to win, with the result that they've been playing loose," analyzed General Manager Max McNab. "The third period has caught up with them. Its not a conditioning thing. I think it's more a case of the books balancing. We have had good third periods. Just what has brought about the turnaroud has been pretty frustrating for us."
Dennis Maruk, the Capitals' high scorer, is second from last on the team in the plus-minus ratings, with a minus-27 figure. In the last four games, he has collected three goals and six assists, indicating No. 1 star status. Yet he has emerged from each of those games as a minus player, cumulatively minus seven, indicating that he needs a refresher course in defense.
A player receives a plus each time his team scores an equal-strength or shorthanded goal while he is on the ice. Conversely, he is awarded a minus if the opposition scores while at equal strength or shorthanded. Power-play goals and empty-net scores do not count.
Bonus clauses in player contracts are usually based on plus-minus figures and team performance, not individual scoring accomplishments, and Coach Danny Belisle pointed out the obvious: "If each line is plus or even, we'll win the game."
Belisle called Maruk "a home run hitter, the type who wins a lot of hockey games for you." He refrained from another obvious comparison, that Maruk also strikes out a lot, but he noted that, "You have to consider everything. We've got to keep our goals-against down. We're 16th in the league defensively and the last few games are running to form."
Maruk had been playing with Tom Rowe and Gary Rissling, two young wings, and McNab assigned the blame for a lot of those minuses on Rissling by shipping him to Hershey. Sunday, veterans Greg Polis was on the left side, carrying with him a plus-seven rating and a total of only eight minuses in 16 games. Yet the new line was victimized four times.
Rowe has scored in five straight games, totaling four goals and three assists. He has been a minus in all five, cumulatively minus eight, and some of his mistakes have been disastrous.
"A couple of plays the last couple of games have been very costly to us," McNab said. "The backbreaker against Montreal was the fourth goal and there was room for Tommy to do other than what he did.
"Tommy has a tremendous burst and he plays a tremendous reflex type of game -- get the puck and shoot. But he has to gear himself around his capabilities, not carry the puck as much and learn a little patience. Any mistakes he's made have been very glaring types."
In the last 13 games, defenseman Rick Green has scored only two points, both on assists in the 9-3 rout of Colorado, while rolling up a minus-15 rating. For the season, he is minus 39, among the worst marks in the NHL.
"Both (Robert) Picard and Green have been playing so much, on power plays and killing penalties besides their regular shift, that they've been logging an awful lot of ice time," McNab said. "That's one reason why we dressed six defensemen Sunday night, to take a little of the pressure off them."
All the figures relating to the Capitals are not negative ones. Center Rolf Edberg, while playing a regular shift over the last 26 games, has been on the ice for only three goals by the opposition. That borders on the incredible, considering that during that stretch Washington yielded 104 goals, 76 at equal strength.
While building a plus-12 rating during that period, Edberg has collected only two goals and six assists, which might indicate that with a team of Edbergs, Washington would be involved in a lot of scoreless ties. However, much of that time he has been centering Bob Girard, who has recorded three goals and 12 shots since Jan. 1, and Mark Lofthouse, whose 1979 figures read one goal and 21 shots.
"He (Edberg) is so quick and anticipates so well that he is a far better defensive performer than people give him credit for," McNab said. "For his limited experience in this league, he has put in a tremendous effort defensively. He can go from point A to point B so fast.
"He's also a very complete hockey player, outside of his shot. I thought he was good for three or four points the last couple of games on the basis of the plays he made, but some plays he makes are so clever he surprises his own teammates."
Goalie Gary Inness has permitted 20 goals in his last 3 1/2 games, which has created more alarm than the other statistics because it was Inness who was largely responsible for the team's January surge.
"Gary has the mental toughness and mental strength to get back," McNab said. "We put him through a pretty tough wringer. There is no sign of any problems. He seemed to thrive on hard work, but maybe this has caught up with him. He certainly brought a sense of security with him when he was playing so brilliantly."
Inness will play tonight in Los Angeles (WTOP-1500 at 11 p.m.) and Friday in Vancouver... WDCA-TV-20 will start carrying the NHL Saturday games on March 10 and will continue at least through April... McNab earlier discussed former Capital goalie Ron Low with Detroit, which demanded a No. 1 draft choice. End of discussion. Low has been with Kansas City of the Central League all season... Lofthouse did not make the trip and will probably be sent to Hershey today.