The Boston Bruins descend on Capital Centre tonight, offering the Washington Captials opportunity to smash another of those bothersome barriers and regain playoff points lost since the close of business Sunday afternoon.
Washington never has beaten Boston in 26 meetings, of which five were tied, and now that the Montreal jinx is ended, the Capitals are anxious to strike away the Boston and Philadelphia shackles that remain.
After beating the New York Islanders Sunday, the Capitals shared 16th place, the final qualifying spot for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then, however, Vancouver has slipped three points ahead, Quebec one. The situation clearly illustrates the obstacles facing a team that must come all the way up from the cellar.
Coach Gary Green, who took the reins after the Capitals stumbled so badly out of the starting gate, was remembering his NHL coaching debut yesterday, because it came in Boston and ended in a 3-2 loss.The Bruins rallied to win on a pair of third-period goals, Dick Redmond deciding it on a power-play score.
"Boston likes to dump and chase and do the job in the corners," Green said. "We have to take the boards away from them and force them to go inside. We also have to avoid stupid penalties. They have an excellent power play, as we found out before, with Dickie Redmond the key guy on the point."
When Redmond scored that game-winner, Washington's penalty-killing unit consisted of Greg Polis, Bengt Gustafsson, Gord Lane and Leif Svensson of whom only Gustafsson is now active with the Capitals. In those days, Washington had no set penalty-killers and it ranked last in defending the power play.
The latest statistics show the Capitals 19th in penalty kills at 72.9 percent, behind Pittsburgh and Quebec. But the situation has brightened in the last four games, with the opposition converting only one of 14.
Credit for the improvement must go to Wes Jarvis and Glen Currie, a pair of 21-year-old rookies who played in Port Huron a year ago and had no higher hopes than a spot in Hershey when this campaign began. Each received a chance here when injuries struck and each worked hard enough to stay.
Green likes to go with three lines and keep a fourth for specialty work. Jarvis and Currie, both centers, became the penalty-killing specialists when Dennis Maruk returned to join Rolf Edberg and Ryan Walter as the regular centermen. They have looked more adept with each succeeding game.
"Jarvis and Kid Currie are playing extremely well," Green said. "They're getting better and better. I'm particularly pleased with their concentration. They're not getting a lot of ice time, but they know what their job is and when we get a penalty they're ready to get out there and go to it.
"Killing penalties is just as important a role as scoring goals. We are getting killed on the power play. The power-play percentage throughout the league is up this year and you can't afford to take stupid penalties. We've cut them down and now we're cutting down the opposition's success ratio, too."
As specialists, Jarvis and Currie watch films of past games, with emphasis on opponents' power-play activity, and study Dennis Hextall's scouting report. But most of their penalty-killing work is ad lib, depending on the situation on the ice.
"The main thing is to think defense and not take any chances," Currie said. "You have to watch for the open man. If you see a guy open, you watch him, not just the guy with the puck, and try to anticipate the play. In our zone, all four of us work together. Out of our zone, it's me and him rotating, forcing the play.
"Occasionally, I'll say before I go out whether I'll attempt a break toward their goal. It depends on the score and the sitaution whether they have a forward or a defenseman on the point. It's always easier to beat a forward."
"We try to force them to make mistakes in their end and to clear out the puck when it's in ours," Jarvis said. "We try to stay on top of them, force them to move the puck and make a bad pass.
"We're always talking to each other. We work as a four-man unit, even a five-man unit with the goalie when the puck is in our end. When we're coming back, the defensemen are yelling to pick up this guy, or pick up that guy, or go inside or go outside. If you don't talk killing penalties, you're in trouble."
Both players would rather be playing a regular shift, but they realize the importance of their assignment and at 21 they can afford to wait for more glamorous duty. "I really enjoy it and it's an important part of the game," Jarvis said. "Close to 60 percent of games are won or lost on power-play chances. We've got three good centermen now, and it's hard to crack the lineup, but if I keep working hard I know I'll get my chance to play regularly."
"You have to wait for your opportunity," Currie said. "There are four centers besides myself so I can't expect to play a regular shift. I'm geting a lot of experience, though, both in games and practice and it's got to help."
Boston's power play, successful one-quarter of the time, figures to add to that experience.
The trading deadline passed at noon yesterday without any moves by the Capitals. Said General Manager Max McNab: "The team has a good attitude and the chemistry is good. I would not upset it short of a major deal for a major player." . . . Green has guaranteed a victory tonight: "After listening to those radio commercials about how we're going to handle the big, bad Bruins, what else could I do?"