The Washington Capitals have done some amazing things this winter. They rallied from 4-0 deficit in the third period to defeat the New York Rangers. They blew away the New York Islanders, 7-1. And they just returned from a road trip in which they secured seven of a possible 10 points. Not yet, however, have they been able to beat the Montreal Canadiens.
Opportunity No. 35 in sports' most one-sided series arises tonight at 7:30 at Capital Centre. Ryan Walter, the Capitals' captain, finds his salivary glands already working overtime as he contemplates the chance to beat the perennial Stanley Cup champions.
"We've still never beaten them, there's still a barrier there," Walter said after yesterday's high-spirited and energetic workout at Fort Dupont. "But we've broken a lot of barriers the last half of the season. Montreal games are always well-played games, both teams take out the body cleanly. I'm looking forward to this one."
Neither Walter nor his teammates wants to look backward at the Canadiens' last visit, on Oct. 30. Washington was reveling in a 2-0 lead until the last two minutes, when Montreal scored twice and escaped with a tie, also lists 31 Montreal victories.
It was after that game, in which his timeout call with 2:01 left contributed substantially to Montreal's success, that Coach Danny Belisle uttered some of his more memorable words, "Tomorrow when you analyze it, it will be moral victory."
Owner Abe Pollin instead analyzed Belisle and fired him two weeks later.
Walter was struggling during those early weeks of the season, but he has been a standout in recent weeks. Over the last four games, Walter has recorded five goals and two assists, and he has a plus-11 performance rating over the last 22 games. Part of Walter's early-season problem was his newly won captaincy, an honor he took a bit too seriously until Belisle's successor, Gary Green, convinced him he was doing enough leading by example without overdoing things.
"I think it hurt me," Walter said. "I was overprotective of the team for the first 10 games. So much of this sport is mental. The first year I just wanted to play hockey; this year I felt I had to establish myself in the community.
"There was more demand on my time and I was occupied with a house and a car. The last half of the season I got away from a lot of extra commitments, from the cars and the houses. I've just stuck to hockey and you can see the difference."
Walter's aggressive play has produced a larger than normal share of aches and pains, and he will be encased in a protective girdle tonight, but he has been out there every night, regardless of enforced limitations. It is easy to tell when Walter is troubled -- be it bruised shoulder, pulled groin muscle or sprained wrist -- if he appears to be giving less than 100 percent, he is hurting.
"If you have a knee problem, then you have to rest," Walter said. "The small things you can always play with. Those four days on the West Coast were good. I had a couple of things wrong and Mike (Gartner), too. Other guys had some bruises. It gave us a chance to get healed up.
"Management showed faith in us, giving us a holiday like that, and I think we repaid it with some good hockey. We played well in Los Angeles. If we didn't come out of that road trip with a good score, we were sunk. We still have life."
There has not been much life displayed by the team's marketing department, which offered so many promises in August. Its latest dazzler, to be implemented tonight, was resurrected from the desperate days of year two, when the whole team was a joke.
It is Guaranteed Win Night, and unless the Capitals beat Montreal, everyone in attendance will receive a free ticket to a future game. The idea was discarded after three winless guarantees in 1975-76 because of the pressure it placed on the players who had enough problems, and the fans, many of whom found themselves rooting for ties.
"What's too much pressure?" asked Green, who approved the gimmick and explained to his team yesterday. Walter was not concerned, either.
"We're preparing for this game the way we've been doing," Walter said. "There is no extra pressure. Promotions are their job, our job is to win. I think we're going to come out big. This is the playoffs. Just seeing the Canadiens will be enough to get us going."
Tim Coulis, back, and Bengt Gustafsson, groin, left practice early with muscle pulls. Both are expected to play tonight.