The Washington Capitals begin their sixth season tonight in Buffalo and, if Oct. 11 seemed a bit premature for winter sports in the past, nobody was complaining about it this time.
It usually takes a month for most folks to become attuned to the ice action. This year, however, they are urged to pay attention early, because that first month figures to be the most crucial period of the Capitals' history.
Of the team's first 13 games, nine will be played on the road. The four home contests are against Boston, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal -- teams that finished ahead of Washington last year and are likely to do so again.
What would be the effect of a 3-10 start, or thereabouts? Nobody cared to consider such a possibility yesterday, but it is not out of the question. And it could have wide ramifications, even though the Capitals seem capable in the long haul of posting a .500 record and earning their first playoff berth.
A bad start, however excusable, would be a blow at the box office, where ticket sales are stagnant. The exhibitionloss to Hartford on home ice last week left Capital fans a dose of skepticism that only success can erase.
Owner Abe Pollin has spent a bundle on new players and he is unlikely to rest easily under adversity, even through his scheduling of the Horse Show into Capital Centre is a prime reason for that tough early scheudle.
So General Manager Max McNab and Coach Danny Belisle would find themselves on shaky ground. Panic at any level of management could lead to disaster and a truly disastrous season could send the franchise spinning towary the Meadowlands or another available port.
Conversely, and that is not impossible either, the Capitals could go through those 13 games at about a .500 pace and build the momentum for a truly fine season. A competitive hockey team has the potential to arouse considerable interest here and approach sellout status. That is the dream of Pollin and his employes.
"I'm not pleased about the schedule, but you can't mope about it," Belisle said. "If we can take our share of points early, it should give us confidence. It will all even out eventually. We have to be careful not to let them get discouraged it there is a bit of a slow start."
"If you had your druthers, you would like to get an even start over the first 20 or 25 games," McNab said. "But traditionally we're going to be in this situation. Actually, it's the best schedule we've ever faced. The strengths of the schedule, with none of those four-in-five stretches that killed us last year, overpower the weaknesses.
"We'll be careful of any panicking. If the playoffs are up for grabs at the end of the season, we have the home-ice advantage. This should be very competitive year all the way around."
"We have to get ready early and be grouped together right at the start," said Dennis Maruk, the club's high scorer last season. "We've got a tough schedule and we have to get the guys together and get right down to business. We have a lot of new faces and we can't afford to wait to get to know each other."
"I'd rather play them now than at the end," said Guy Charron, who may or may not be the team's captain tonight. Some teams are in shape now, but some aren't, and you can jump them early. Then some teams take us for granted and we may be able to surprise them. We know we have to get off well."
Before leaving for Buffalo, the players held a secret-ballot election to determine this year's captain. Belisle said he would not announce the result until today.
Belisle said there was only a "1 percent chance" that right wing Tom Rowe, who has been attending to his mother's funeral, would play tonight. Rowe will rejoin the team in time for a skate this morning.
The abundance of centers has been temporarily handled by placing Ryan Walter at left wing and Swedish rookie Bengt Gustafsson at right wing. Walter had a mediocre preseason at Gustafsson's natural position.
Walter will play with Maruk in the middle and rookie Mike Gartner, the club's No. 1 draft choice, on the right side. Teaming with Gustafsson will be rookie left wing Errol Rausse and center Rolf Edberg. The third line has Charron centering left wing Greg Polis and right wing Bob Sirois.
None of these units performed together during the Capitals' 7-2-1 exhibition campaign. However, Belisle has had them working for the last two days at Fort Dupont.
Paul Mulvey and Dennis Hextall will be the spare forwards. The defense pairing have Pierre Bouchard with Pete Scamurra, Robert Picard with Leif Svensson and Rick Green with World Hockey Association reclaim Paul MacKinnon. Wayne Stephenson will be the goalie.
Green said yesterday he endorsed a demand by his agent, Norm Caplan, that he be traded if the club would not submit to his pay demands.
McNab has declined both options. The salary in question would make Green the highest paid Capital, hardly merited by his performance the past three seasons. Green chose to play out his option after a season in which his minus 43 rating was more than double the deficiencies of any teammate.
While the plus-minus rating is not an exact determinant of ability, it apparently is enough of an indicator so that other clubs have been wary in making trade offers. McNab has no intention of giving Green away, so Green must play his best for a team he doesn't like in order to enhance his postseason value.
Caplan apparently has emboldened by his success in having another client, Garry Unger, peddled to Atlanta by a St. Louis club that had rejected high salary demands.
Tonight's game will be televised by WDCA-TV-20 at 8 p.m., but presumably the ratings game will be lost to that other ice show, in Baltimore.
The in-person crowd will fill Memorial Auditorium for the debut of Scotty Bowman as the Sabres' coach. Bowman, associate coach Roger Neilson and assistant Jim Roberts give Buffalo a big edge in brainpower over the rest of the NHL. The talent on the ice is less formidable, particularly with star defenseman Jerry Korab idled by a boken collarbone.
New to the Sabres are defenseman John Van Boxmeer, acquired from Colorado for Rene Robert; defenseman Lindy Ruff, an 19-year-old drafted in the second round, and center Robert Mongrain, a free agent who scored 66 goals as a junion for Three Rivers in the Quebec League.