The Washington Capitals waged the good fight tonight -- and lost. With Reg Leach Reaching the 50-goal plateau on his eighth career hat trick, the Philadelphia Flyers wiped out a 2-0 deficit over the last 25 minutes and pricked Washington's playoff bubble, 4-2.
The loss put the Capitals two points behind Vancouver and one behind Edmonton in the race for the last two playoff spots, after the Canucks beat Los Angeles, 4-2, in a later game.
The Capitals must beat Atlanta in the regular season final Saturday at Capital Centre and hope either that the homesteading Kings can trip the Canucks in their Sunday rematch or Edmonton, loses to Colorado Friday.
In the event of a tie with Vancouver in total points, the Capitals would get the playoff spot based on more victories, Edmonton would gain the edge over Washington in the event of a tie, having won the season series.
Immediately preceding the first of Leach's three goals were two bitter brawls that seemed to soap the Capitals' strength. Their momentum had already disappeared under a second-period barrage of 22 Flyer shots.
The first fight was the two-man variety, as Capital rookie Gary Rissling blasted Bob Kelly into the boards with stick up and Kelly came back swinging. Both were chased after Kelly tossed a water bottle at Rissling in the penalty box, and it took both bars and a policeman armed with a nightstick to keep them separated beneath the stands.
The second battle involved all the players on the ice except the goal-tenders. It was triggered when Washington's Robert Picard threw a solid check on Ken Linesman. The Flyer center then tripped Picard and the playres paired off, with Jack McIlhargey attacking Picard as he rose from a kneeling position on the ice and Mike Gartner battling McIlhargey.
Unlike Kelly, Picard had sufficient restraint to provide Washington a three-minute power play. Before that advantage came around, however, each team had to play two men short for two minutes.
Just four seconds before Washington went on the power play, Leach drove a 50-footer past Stephenson with Bobby Clarke screening.
Then 11 seconds after the Caps' unsucessful power play was terminated, Jim Watson sent a high drive just under the crossbar from the left-wing circle.
Philadelphia went ahead for the first time at 5:08 of the third period after Washington's Alan Hangsleben sent a pass through and empty slot at the Philadelphia end. Al Hill passed to Clarke, whose pass freed Leach for a drive from the right-wing circle.
The Flyers failed on five breakaways in the third period, two shots clipping posts and Stephenson stopping three, before Leach wrapped it up with a blast into the empty net from the Washington blueline.
Hangsleben, off a Rolf Edberg setup, sent Washington ahead at 9:05 of the first period, as three straight Flyer penalties created two double advantages for the Capitals. Bob Sirois made it 2-0 by beating Paul Holmgren to a rebound of a Pat Ribble shot and poking the puck between the legs of goalie Pete Peeters.
Rissling and Dennis Maruk shot wide with chances to make it 3-0 early in the second period, then the Capitals actually put the puck in the net without adding to their lead.
Picard fired wide of the cage, the puck caromed back out front and Paul Mulvey jammed the puck through Peeters. Referee Alf Lejeune lost sight of the disk, however, and blew his whistle prematurely, depriving Washington of the score.
Pierre Bouchard drove the puck off a post with Peeters beaten and the Flyers ahead 3-2. Then Hill tripped Picard and the Capitals had a good chance on the power play. Peeters mishandled a Picard blast and Maruk was off target with the rebound. It was the last reasonable chance for the Caps to create to a tie and escape with their first point ever at the Spectrum.
Although the Capitals never have beaten Philadelphia in 24 meetings, they came here with every intention of winning and maintaining the playoff position that has now become most vulnerable.
"We were determined to come in here and win," said Coach Gary Green. "We had a strong first period, but we were standing still in the second. The Flyers were working pretty hard and had a lot of shots even before the fights.
"Gary Rissling played very well and I think it was an injustice that he got that high-sticking penalty.I think Alfie Lejeune should take another look at that one.
"At times the game was out of control and it dragged on and got a little ridiculous. One time Frank Udvari (an officials' supervisor) came down and talked to them. If it takes four to stop it, then use four."
The officials could have used another eye when the Flyers' Bob Dailey leveled Picard with an elbow to the head midway through the final period. Picard was knocked unconscious and needed to be helped from the ice. Dailey went unpenalized. "
"I was dizzy for a while and I didn't want to take a chance," Picard said. "I'll be okay. I'll certainly have the skates on Saturday."
Picard tried to avoid a penalty during the big brawl, but wound up with a roughing minor.
"I knew McIlhargey had something already and I didn't want to get involved," Picard said. "We really had a power play. I didn't know why I got a penalty. It was ridiculous. I just grabbed somebody and tried to keep away from him, because I knew he wanted to get me off and I consider myself worth more on the ice than McIlhargey."
Gartner, idled for 15 minutes after the fight, and Ryan Walter sat with heads down in their locker stalls long after the game had ended.
"We just lost the most important game of the year. Watching them score from anywhere doesn't help and watching from the penalty box is worse."
Rissling, making his first start as the third-line left wing while Antero Lehtonen sat out, recorded his first point of the season when he assisted on Sirois" goal.
"I was excited and as long as I can contribute I'm happy," Rissling said.
"I thought we were on the light track, but things got out of hand."
"We'll just cross our fingers and hope Vancouver loses one or two," Green said. "We'll go home and put ourselves together and go out and beat Atlanta Saturday."