Although out of sight and out of earshot, the Washington Capitals and their pursuit of a playoff berth remain prominent in the minds of loyal fans. Occupying a special niche are newcomers Pat Ribble and Alan Hangsleben, who have performed at their best in hairy situations.
Tonight at 7:30 the Capitals play a vital game in Detroit against the Red wings, who are one notch ahead in the standings. It is one of those pressure contests that the Capitals, because of early season aches and pains, face almost every time out. On this occasion, the fans are under pressure, too, because the absence of local radio and television will force them to fine-tune WJR-760 in Detroit for word of the proceedings.
"Every game we play we have pressure on us," said Coach Gary Green."Because of that gruesome period in October and November and the early part of December, we applied pressure on ourselves. We had to put pressure on ourselves early just to catch a few clubs."
The Capitals, near death in December, have stirred themselves sufficiently to overhaul Winnipeg, Colorado and Vancouver. Detroit, only three points ahead, is another vulnerable target.
The rate of Captial progress can be illustrated by a quick trip back in time, to Feb. 6, when the Capitals and Red Wings battled to a 2-2 tie at Joe Louis Arena. Since that contest the Capitals have swallowed up 10 points of what once seemed an almost insurmountable 13-point deficit behind the Wings.
Although they have played only three home games during the three-week stretch since the All-Star Game, the Capitals have piled up 14 points, a total unsurpassed in the NHL. Significantly, two of the Capitals' victims in that surge were Montreal and Chicago, very productive clubs themselves.
Also significant was Washington's ability to tie Colorado defeat Los Angeles without defenseman Rick Green, nursing a bruised knee. Much credit must go to veteran Pierre Bouchard and newcomer Ribble, who have alternated shifts with Robert Picard and Paul MacKinnon. r
"Butch and Rib playing together has been a plus for us," Gary Green said. "They're both strong, aggressive guys and they don't let the team be pushed around."
Ribble has been a pleasant surprise since he was obtained from Toronto Feb. 15 for Mike Kaszycki. In 13 games with the Maple Leafs, Ribble recorded a performance rating of minus 10, which contributed to his status as an expendable.
In five games as a Capital, Ribble is plus one, his body-checking has been commendable and his goal and assist in a four-shot effort helped Washington to its 5-3 conquest of Los Angeles Tuesday night.
"They were leaving the points open a lot," Ribble said. " must have had as many shots in that game as I had all season. Washington is giving me a chance to play, where Toronto didn't.
"I'm feeling a lot better now. The legs are coming around. I didn't play that much before and I had trouble Denver Sunday, playing every other shift in that altitude."
"Before the Ribble deal we were walking on eggs and then the worst happened, Green going out," said General Manager Max McNab. "With out Ribble, we don't get those three points from Colorado and Los Angeles."
Hangsleben has been an asset, too, bompiling a plus-two rating with four goals and three assists in 18 games.
Hangsleben's major contributions has been his aggressive work in the corners, playing left wing alongside Bengt Gustafsson and Rolf Edberg, two swift skaters who know what to do with the puck once Hangsleben gets it for them.
It is a new role for Hangsleben, who was one of Hartford's best defensemen and most popular players until he was acquired Jan. 17, for Tom Rowe.
"I still consider myself a defenseman," Hangsleben said. "I find myself hanging back, thinking defense more than offense. I only played wing a few t times before, when there were a lot of injuries."
On one of those occasions, Washington scout Dennis Hextall saw Hangsleben's line account for four goals in Detroit. Green, looking for muscle to complement the Swedes' abilities, remembered Hextall's report and he says he has no intention of moving Hangsleben back.
Both Hangsleben and Ribble, who played some wing in Atlanta last year, think defense is a much tougher job. Ribble illustrated it, to his chagrin, when he was backing up in a one-on-one situation with Marcel Dionne, who used Ribble as a screen to score Tuesday.
"They've just something, that line, and especially Dionne, "Ribble said,
"You've got to back up, or e'll go right around you. On defense, you have so may things to think about It's a lot easier to hit a guy on the wing."
"You do have to concentrate more on defense," Hangsleben agreed. "If you hit a guy on the wing, you're okay. But hit a guy on defense and you can take yourself out of the play."
Regardless of the problems incolved, both are hitting the opposition with a frequency fans and management enjoy.
Rick Green, Dennis Maruk and Edberg will be examined by Dr. Pat Palumbo this morning. Any or all of three could play tonight, but in each case the odds are below 50 -- 50 . . . With so many defensemen ailing in the system, McNab has summoned amateur Jim McTaggart from Billings, Montana, of the Western League, to dress tonight if Green cannot.