After the Washington Capitals beat the Colorado Rockies, 4-1, last night, Capital Centre public-address announcer Mary Brooks announced, "The Washington Capitals are now in sole possession of 15th place."
Those who remained in the crowd of 12,239 responded with unbridled enthusiasm, prompting a question to owner Abe Pollin as to where else fans would approach delirium over a team that was holding 15th place by one point in a 21-team league.
"Everything is relative in this world," replied Pollin, who must have been thanking heaven, the NHL governors and his creditors that 16 teams will participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
For 20 minutes last night, the Capitals looked like the 21st-place team they were two months ago. Colorado took a 1-0 lead when Lanny McDonald scored on the game's first shot and the score stayed that way until 8:06 of the second period, when Mark Lofthouse pulled Washington even.
Mike Gartner broke the tie and extended his goal-scoring streak to eight games before Alan Hangsleben and Dennis Maruk provided the insurance.
The victory extended the Capitals' unbeaten streak to seven games, a team record, and was the 25th victory of the season, another milestone. Additionally, it was the first time in 28 meetings, 24 with Boston and four with Colorado, that the Capitals had conquered Don Cherry, the coach Centre fans love to hate.
"That's not a bad record, one in 27," said Cherry, who coaches better than he counts. "They were under pressure tonight and they played well. They're going to be tough in the playoffs. As for me, you never know you're up until you're down."
The Capitals have been down so long that 15th place is way, way up. Yet for 28 minutes it seemed as though they could not climb that last important rung. They were completely disorganized in the first period, with the crowd gasping when Gartner and Maruk collided behind their own net during a Washington power play.
Part of the reason, undoubtedly, was the appearance of referee Alf Lejeune, who officiated March 2 when the Capitals were last beaten, 3-1, by the Rockies here, at which point Coach Gary Green made his only public outcry over the officiating all season.
"When they scored on that first shift, the guys were just grinding their teeth on the bench," Green said. "Every guy was determined to get it back and they forgot the system and were disorganized on the ice. A lot of other things had something to do with the frustration, too, but I'll leave it alone this time."
The frustration ended in the second period when Rick Green carried the puck out of the Washington end, crossed the Colorado blue line and dropped a pass for Lofthouse, who scored from 50 feet.
It was a rare push by the normally cautious Rick Green and a propitious move by Gary Green, who had just put Lofthouse in Antero Lehtonen's place on the Maruk line.
"Whether I carry the puck depends on the team we play," said Green the skater. "Colorado gave me a little more time, so I lugged it a bit. Other teams press us and I lay back and feed the forwards."
Less than six minutes later, Gartner scored the game winner. Bengt Gustafsson dug the puck off the boards and fed Gartner, who spun in the right-wing circle and kept his string going with his 34th goal.
Gartner is five games away from the modern mark of 13 in a row set earlier this year by Los Angeles' Charlie Simmer. Punch Broadbent of Ottawa holds the record of 16, established in 1921-22.
"If we just won our last nine games, I'd be happier than a pig in slop," said Gartner. "I don't care if they stop me, as long as they don't stop the team."
Another Gustafsson setup, this time to Hangsleben, relieved the pressure midway through the third period. Then Maruk, on a give-and-go with Bob Sirois, scored his first goal in 10 games since returning from knee surgery. He had eight goals in eight games before he was hurt in Vancouver Oct. 27.
"Everybody thought I'd come back and score in every game, but I can't do that," Maruk said. "It takes time. I'm not a superstar. I just go out and play the best I can. I don't think I can be 100 percent this season because of what happened. I'm glad I was able to come back ahead of schedule after the surgery."