The Washington Capitals checked into the Detroit Plaza Hotel tonight waling past the display of hockey trophies in the lobby. Accorded the position of prominence was the Stanely Cup, Goal of all National Hockey League teams at season's start.
Approachig the two-thirds mark of their season, the Capitals are merely groping for the opportunity to be included in the 16-team playoff draw. Quaffing champagne from the historic mug, the right of champions, is a dream for the future.
Playoff participation, seemingly a certainty in October is fast becoming a fantasy areas, and the five-game road trip that commences here Wednesday night has the potential to be the graveyard for the hopes of four months ago.
Washington has tumbled 10 points behind 16th-place Edmonton and presidently ranks 21st in a 21-team league. Further slippage will spell disaster, whether Dennies Maruk returns in a few weeks or not.
"This is the most important road trip of the year," said winger Mike Gartner, his bruised left heel much improved. "If we're not .500 or better, it will be difficult to make the play-offs.
"It's getting really frustrating. We play one good game and three bad ones. We aren't getting any consistency. You don't get consistency in a Cracker Jack box. We have to dig in deep inside ourselves."
Coach Gary Green still thinks the Capitals are capable of rebounding into the sweet 16, but he also realizes it will not happen without some victories on the current trip, in which the Detroit game is followed by stops at Winnipeg, Los Angeles, Edmonton and Vancouver.
"This road trip is crucial," Green said. "It can make or break us. All five games are against teams we have the ability to beat.
"What we need badly is some finishing off there. We're getting scoring chances and we're wasting them. The forwards are getting frustrated at not being able to put the puck in the net. Often, the third man presses instead of playing his position and tends to be caught. I can't put strings on them, unfortunately, and pull them from the bench."
The Red Wings, although four games below .500, are firmly in the playoff picture with 47 points. Their big two way gun is rookie Mike Foligno, with 24 goals and 48 points. Defenseman Willie Huber has been throwing his 228 pounds around and rookie winger John Ogrodnick has injected some needed spirit.
Detroit goalie Rogie Vachon is back in the fans' good graces, after a dreadful season, with a 3.15 goals-against mark.