Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Capitals, appeared at last night's NBA All-Star Game dinner and guaranteed that his hockey team would qualifty for the Stanley Cup playoffs.If that guarantee includes a money-back clause, there are 17,761 persons waiting to apply.
That was the size of the throng that created a huge traffic jam outside Capital Centre last night, then watched the New York Rangers overpower the struggling Capitals, 6-3.
At least the folks could bask in a moment of hockey history. New York's Phil Esposito scored two goals to become the second player in NHL annals to reach the 700-goal mark. Hart ford's Gordie Howe has 797.
The 700th was hardly the kind to fix in one's memory. It came at 1:57 of the third period, as Esposito took Don Maloney's headman pass behind the Capitals' defense and fired a 30-footer at goalie Wayne Stephenson.
The weary Stephenson, who had faced 39 shots in Atlanta Friday night and 21 in the first period last night, allowed the puck to drop beneath him and it trickled the last 10 feet into the net.
That made the score 6-1 and Stephenson immediately departed for Rollie Boutin. Washington then outshot New York, 16-3, the rest of the way and closed the gap a bit on goals by Rick Green and Rolf Edberg.
Edberg's score came on a penalty shot with 6:31 remaining, after he was hauled down from behind by New York's Ron Greschner. The tricky Swede made it look easy, deking goalie Doug Soetaert to the ice and whipping the puck into the empty net.
It was the Capitals' fourth successful penalty shot in the eight attempts they've had since the team was formed. Guy Charron and Bengt Gustafsson failed earlier this season.
"It was easy," Edberg said, laughing. "When I started, I saw the goalie on the right side, so I faked a little bit with the body and go left. I had the empty net. I probably needed that goal. It's been a little tough the last five games."
This defeat was tough to take for a team that in desperately trying to evacuate the league cellar and make a playoff run. The Rangers were missing six players, including all-star figured to be on even terms with an opponent, this was it.
However, after Tim Coulis' first NHL goal gave washington an early lead, the Rangers overwhelmed the home side. Although Stephenson made 19 saves in the first period. Walt Tkaczuk and Steve Vickers connected to put New York in front.
In the second period, the Rangers clicked on three of six shots, with Vickers recording his 20th of the season, Esposito the 699th of his career and Ron Duguay his 15th of the season.
That gave the Rangers a four-goal lead entering the final period and a lot of people remembered that on their last visit a 4-0 lead became a 5-4 Washington victory. Some of those people were in the New York dressing room.
"There was no way they were going to come back this time," said Esposito, who assured that fact with his historic goal.
"I would have loved to have gotten No. 700 in the Garden," Esposito said.
"That would have been a real thrill for me. But I told my wife before I left, "There's no way. I'm too hot now. I'll get it on this road trip."
"The one I remember best of all those 700 was No. 1 against Montreal when I was with Chicago, and Bobby Hull got an assist on it. I'll never catch Gordie. He'll probably still be playing when I retire."
Mike Gartner, who bruised his left heel Wednesday, returned to action and took a full shift. He was obviously below par, however, and said, "I had trouble starting. There just wasn't any strength there."
Dennis Maruk, who underwent knee surgery Nov. 1, skated in the pregame warmup to give his teammates a lift. He is still several weeks from game action and by that time the Capitals could be dead, although Coach Gary Green backed up his boss' optimism by saying, "Yes, we can make the playoffs, but we have to get the ball rolling. I hope that good third period turned things around. If we hadn't played well in the third period, I'd be hesitant to say that."