In utilizing their first-round choice in the August entry draft, the Washington Capitals weighed two key factors. They wanted the best player available, yet they desperately needed a winger who could score. By selecting Mike Gartner, they appear to have satisfied both requirements.
Gartner presently leads the team in both scoring, with 21 points, and the plus-minus ratings, with a remarkable figure of plus nine. He has been chosen the No. 1 star in both of the Capital's victories this month, over Quebec and the New York Rangers.
For a while, however, there were some doubts about Gartner's ability. Over the first 22 games, he scored only three goals. Then Coach Gary Green placed him on line with Paul Mulvey and Wes Jarvis and the trio combined for four consecutive goals that overwhelmed the Nordiques.
More recently, Mike Kaszycki has moved between Gartner and Mulvey, with no diminution of results. That line was responsible for three of the five third-period goals that stunned the Rangers Saturday.
"When Gary put us together, we just seemed to click," Gartner said. "Paul is physical and gets a lot of respect. Jarvie and Kaz are smart with the puck and they can score. We all work well together."
Gartner's biggest asset is his speed. In one respect, however, he has proven to be so fast that it has worked to his detriment. That has occurred on breakaways, where he has frequently been foiled by the goaltender because he lacks time to maneuver.
"I've always had breakaways, right through junior, but I used to score more," Gartner said. "I guess the goalies here are a lot smarter. They come out and poke check, which they didn't do in junior. "I get a lot of breaks going down the wings. I've built speed up and, going full speed and cutting in, when the goalie comes out it's tough to deke him. I think it's just a matter of adjusting."
Gartner has two problems during his early drought. In one case, frequent shots caroming harmlessly off the goal posts, he changed nothing. In the other, being pinched to the boards and out of the play by opposing defensemen, he adjusted admirably.
"I was getting a lot of chances and even though it was frustrating hitting so many posts, I just kept doing the same thing," Gartner said. "If you get the chances, there's nothing to worry about. Sooner or later, they'll hit the post and go inside instead of out.
"Going down the wing, though, I was breaking to the outside rather than to the net and the defensemen were keeping me outside. I found that I had to be aggressive if I wanted the puck. This is a different league this year and everybody is smarter."
Gartner collected 27 goals in the World Hockey Association last season after netting 74 over two junior campaigns. Other young hotshots far eclipsed those figures, but they drew less interest from scouts than Gartner, with his two-way abilities and team-oriented play.
"During the course of the season, I pay close attention to my plus-minus," Gartner said. "During a game you always try not to be scored upon -- that's half the game -- and I'm very conscious of that.
"Plus-minus can be misleading, though. You can have your man covered and another guy will score and you still get a minus. Look at Pic (Robert Picard) and Greener Rick Green). They're just incredible defensemen, two of the best in the league, and they get a lot of minuses."
The big item in Gartner's mind as the Capitals prepare for tonight's game with Hartford at Springfield, Mass. (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30 p.m.) is neither pluses nor minuses nor goals. It is victories.
"We've just got to start winning some games," he said. "This is too good a team to be on the bottom."
Winger Bob Sirois aggravated his strained back at practice yesterday and will not be able to play tonight. Dr. Pat Palumbo said Sirois was suffering from a chronic strain with recurrent spasms and would resume his program of bed rest, physical therapy and rehabilitative exercises. Sirois, a 29-goal scorer last year, has been able to play only three games since he was injured Oct. 20.
With Hersey idle until Saturday, winger Antero Lehtonen has been practicing with the Capitals. His future is under discussion.