The Washington Capitals managed to satisfy some of their fans last night, those who were chanting, "Zero, zero, we want one." Blair Stewart's goal with 7:15 remaining averted a shutout as the Capitals' six-game unbeaten streak ended in a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
Most of the 8,201 fans departed early, however, probably wishing the attendance figure had been 8,200. If the Capitals this season have played a worse period than the first, in which they fell four goals behind, it does not come readily to mind.
"We just lost it in the first period," said Coach Danny Delisle. "We were flatfooted and they were skating circles around us. We didn't see the puck the first period. The goaltender was off, the defense was off, the forwards had no communication.
"Maybe a lot of us thought it was an 8 o'clock game and it started at 7:30. I guarantee you Friday we'll be ready at 7:30 instead of 8."
What the Capitals will be ready for was somewhat uncertain, since the team is not scheduled to play Friday.
Detroit Coach Bobby Kromm did not choose to be magnanimous in victory, but instead underlined the obvious.
"I think the score flattered Washington," Kromm said. "We could have scored four or five more in the second period and the score could have been 11-0. Tonight, we just frustrated the Washington Capitals."
The last time the Wings were here, they jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period over a weary Washington team that was playing its fifth game in seven days. The Capitals pulled even before losing, 4-3.
Last night, the Capitals had no excuses and no comeback. Although they played capably in the last two periods, they never threatened to get back in contention.
The Wings jumped in front after 109 seconds, as Bill Hogaboam's pass from the right-wing corner was deflected into the net by Paul Woods, despite the swarming presence of Washington defenseman Rick Green.
After four minutes, Detroit had five shots on goal to the Capitals' zero, a fact that was not transmitted to the crowd because the shot clocks, like the Capitals, were not working.
When Dan Labraaten's blast from the blue line got by goalie Gary Inness' left shoulder at 8:29, after the Capitals had created a bit of a fuss at the other end, it was apparent that the Ides of March had arrived a day early to plague the home club.
Bob Sirois received his third penalty of the year for tripping Woods and Detroit's power play responded with its 66th goal. Dale McCourt connected with a drive off Inness' stick from the left point for his 25th goal and it was 3-0.
This was the 12th extra-man score for the Wings against Washington, a high percentage of success against a team that had yielded only 67 such goals.
Stewart dealt a thumping check to Reed Larson a few minutes later and the crowd had its first opportunity to cheer. When Robert Picard flattened Dennis Polonich, there was more celebration.
But quiet was restored by Willie Huber, who beat Inness with a drive from the outer edge of the right-wing circle with 1:31 left in the period.
Things had reached such a sorry state that Rolf Edberg, the Capitals' good-luck charm, was on the ice for this one, the first time he had skated while an opponent scored in 13 games. It was only the fourth minus in 33 games for Edberg, surely a record that will be difficult to eclipse.
While Detroit kept banging the puck off the goal posts -- or inness' pads -- the game's remaining interest quickly centered around Jim Rutherford's chances of recording his first shutout of the season. He didn't.
Stewart, who had not scored in 17 games, neted a second rebound of a Dennis Maruk shot, Rutherford stopping Jack Lynch's rebound attempt before Stewart slipped it past for his fifth goal of the season.
Belisle removed Inness for a sixth skater in the final minutes, a move he explained by saying, "We were desperate. The odds are 10,000 to 1 but why not take them when it's a million to one your goaltender isn't going to score."
While the Capitals were being badgered by the insults of fans who quickly forgot the joys of that sixgame streak, forwards Gary Rissling and Rick Bragnalo were making yet one more trip up Interstate Rte. 83, having been returned to the Hershey farm club.