Those big, bad Boston Bruins tried to run the Washington Capitals out of Capital Centre last night, as they had done so many times before. This time, the 27th, it did not happen.
The Capitals, led by Alan Hangsleben, Paul Mulvey and, in a most surprising twist, Bengt Gustafsson, fought back with their bodies in the second period. Then, in the third, they fought back on the scoreboard with three goals in 1 minute 53 seconds and broke the Boston barrier, 6-4.
Washington, trailing 3-1 at the midpoint of the game, closed to a goal when the gutty Gustafsson collected a rebound of his own shot and beat Boston's Gerry Cheevers with a high backhander.
In the first 10 minutes of the third period, the Capitals fired nine shots at Cheevers, permitted Boston none and moved ahead to stay on goals by Hangsleben, Mulvey and Rolf Edberg.
Hangsleben's tying score startled the crowd of 13,256, because it came on a 55-foot shot while both teams were changing lines. The puck was struck so hard that it took a chunk out of Cheevers' stick.
"I think it surprised him," Hangsleben said. "I was just trying to shoot it around the defenseman. I've been shooting high and wide a bit, but you have to keep the people who clean the glass busy. This one was just right, a little above his knees."
Hangsleben's 10th goal came at 8:15. Sixty-five seconds later, Ryan Walter knocked the puck away from Boston's Ray Bourque and started a three-on-one break with Mulvey and Mike Gartner. Passing perfectly, Walter set up Mulvey for his 11th goal.
"I wanted to give it to Paul early, as soon as the defenseman committed himself," Walter said. "I've been waiting too long to give it to him. It was good to see big Paul pop one. He deserves it."
The Capitals, ahead 4-3, did not try to sit on the lead. They were pressing in the Boston end and just 48 seconds later Edberg pounced on the puck lying in front of the Boston net, backed off momentarily and lifted it in for his 18th goal and sixth game winner.
"I saw the puck beside Hank's feet and I skated in and took it," Edberg said. "Then I made a move I've tried in practice, but hits was the first time in a game. There was a lot of traffic around the net and if I'd shot at the net I probably would have hit feet. So I waited until I saw the opening."
Boston's Rick Middleton created some anxiety with his second goal of the game with 3:34 remaining. However, goalie Wayne Stephenson made a fine save on Bobby Lalonde's deflection of a Brad McCrimmon drive and Gartner wrapped it up with an empty-net score. Gartner's 31st goal came with 27 seconds remaining after he outskated Brad Park to the puck, which had been propelled into the Boston end by Walter.
The turning point in Washington's fourth straight victory would appear to be Hangsleben's goal, but Walter thought another contribution by Hangsleben was more significant.
"They intimidated pretty well in the first period and I think the turning point came when Alan Hangsleben nailed (Stan) Jonathan with a solid check," Walter said. "From there on, we took care of ourselves."
The Capitals had to take care of themselves, because they received no help from referee Wally Harris. In the first period, Harris ignored some flagrant violations committed against Gustafsson and Edberg, as well as Terry O'Reilly's blantant charge into Stephenson, who had scooped up the puck in the left-wing circle.
The overlooked fouls of the first period led to fighting late in the second period, as Jonathan, reputed to be one of the NHL's best brawlers, went after Gustafsson and O'Reilly and Mulvey threw some devastating punches.
O'Reilley and Mulvey battled again in the third period, this scrap ending with O'Reilly, jersey and elbow pad in his hands, skating slowly to the box. The fans, who had begun a "Mulvey, Mul-vey" chant earlier, gave their gladiator a memorable salute this time.
"They're great fans," Mulvey said. "But it's hard on the hands, I'll tell you. They tried to intimidate us, but there's no way we're going to beat out (of the playoffs) because a team plays tough against us."
While Mulvey was breaking the team record for penalties with 218 minutes, Gustafsson was collecting his first major in the NHL. It happened late in the second period, well behind the play, and Gustafsson, in the tradition of the land that produced Ingemar Johansson, threw some pretty fair punches.
"In the past we've been pushed around by the Boston Bruins but tonight we weren't going to be pushed around," said Coach Gary Green. "We gave it back and the best example is Bengt Gustafsson, who fought the toughest guy in the league. That says an awful lot about that locker room right now."
"I don't have to fight usually," Gustafsson said, "but in this case he dropped his gloves and I didn't have any choice. They play that style and you have to give it back. You can't let them hit you and go away."
Last night the Capitals gave a lot back, in the memories of 21 defeats, five ties and no victories.
"Nobody is going to stop us now," Mulvey said. "We're going to make the playoffs, no question."
After a good night's work, the Capitals are just one point away from Vancouver and that last playoff spot.