For a long time, a banner reading "We've Got Playoff Fever" has graced the stands at Capital Centre. In the third period last night, some disgruntled fans tore it down.
The Capitals displayed minimal intensity and fell to the Edmonton Oilers, 5-2, a disaster that made the fans' act a bit more than symbolic. Edmonton had won only two road games all season, including the one here, in November that cost Danny Belisle his job.
There were no cries of "Goodbye Gary" last night, but this was the kind of game Washington fans had been led to believe would no longer happen under Belisle's successor, Gary Green. It was a half-hearted effort at home against a mediocre team the Capitals must beat out to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Green restructured three of his four lines and it was soon apparent that he had tinkered once too often with his new toy. A number of players were nowhere near their assigned areas in the Green system and the swift Oilers quickly exploited the errors.
Ron Chipperfield was alone in front when he converted Bobby Schmautz' pass from the right-wing corner for Edmonton's first goal.
Nobody was around to help goalie Wayne Stephenson on the second-period goal by Cam Connor that put the Oilers ahead to stay at 2-1. Stephenson blocked a shot by Schmautz and dove back into the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to stop Connor's rebound. He could not prevent rebound No. 2.
Wayne Gretzky had nobody in his path, including the wandering Stephenson, as he stood at the slot, accepted Blair McDonald's pass and swept the puck into an open net for his 23rd goal and a 3-1 Oiler lead.
On Stan Weir's 20th goal, Washington defenseman Paul MacKinnon backed up until he blocked Stephenson's view, then Weir unloaded.
The last Edmonton goal will probably be fixed in the minds of the fans for some time. Stephenson went into Gretzky, who eluded him and passed to Lee Fogolin in the slot for an uncontested score.
Green conceded the failure of his line changes by restoring the old units in the third period. Mike Kaszycki then confirmed the old values by scoring the second Washington goal, following sharp passes by Bengt Gustafsson and Rolf Edberg.
The Capitals' first goal ws a power-play score by Bob Sirois, on a 55-foot shot after Robert Picard had jarred the puck loose from Edmonton's Colin Campbell along the side boards.
It was the only success in six Washington power-play opportunities, as the Oilers were assessed six penalties to one for the Capitals. Two extra-man opportunities in the first period produced no shots and drew boos from the assembled 9,352. Since Edmonton built an early 12-2 margin in shots, there were also derisive cheers for Washington's thrid sally at the Oilers' goal, a 120-footer by MacKinnon less than three minutes before the intermission.
"I wanted to get Kaszycki back at center, where he is more effectie," Green said of his switches. "Ryan (Walter) has played left wing and I wanted him with (Guy) Charron and (Mike) Gartner to play the Gretaky line. And I thought (Paul) Mulvey would physically assist Edberg and Gustafsson."
Green also noted the obvious, that the Capitals are in difficulty whenever they are missing either Rick Green or Robert Picard. Green was out last night with a sprained right wrist, while Picard was below form, playing with a sprained arm.
Stephenson, making his first start since Dec. 19, stopped 33 shots and did not get a lot of help. He halted break-aways by Gretzky, Chipperfield and Bret Callighen.
There were cheers for the gallant goalie, but the biggest roar of the night greeted the result of Maryland's basketball victory over Clemson. Obviously, most of the folks wished they had stayed home to watch it.