The Washington Capitals' season ended last night with a standing ovation from a sellout crowd of 18,130 at Capital Centre. It concluded without a victory and a possible playoff berth because the Atlanta Flames, to whom the game meant little but pride, fought the Capitals to a 4-4 standoff.
Ken Houston's second goal of the game, with 2:26 to play, created the final score, but the fans never stopped screaming for the winner they wanted so badly. The Capitals came close, Dennis Maruk shooting inches wide with 40 seconds left.
At the finish, many heads were lowered on the Capitals' bench, possibly as many from pain as from disappointment. Not only did the Capitals set an NHL record with 355 mangames lost through injury, but many of those who played last night were suffering.
Rolf Edberg, who had been playing with a fractured hand, was finally forced out with a first-period charley horse. Bengt Gustafsson, bothered by sore wrists from frequent slashes, needed second-period repairs for a strained knee ligament. Bob Sirois was playing with a broken rib.
"Injuries got us early and injuries held us right to the end," said General Manager Max McNab.
The fact that they performed so gallantly under so much pain did not ease the ache of finishing out of the money.
"I'm very, very disappointed," said goalie Wayne Stephenson, who was playing his 22nd straight game despite a painful back injury. "All I have to look forward to now is next year."
Washington needed a victory in its regular-season finale, plus an assist from Los Angeles against Vancouver last night to reach the playoffs. However, the Canucks prevailed 5-3 Coach Gary Green stood behind the bench long after the final buzzer, head down, as he realized it was not to be.
"It was something we set out to do and no matter how big a hole we dug ourselves early, we still expected to do it," Green said. "It's not very satisfying to fail."
The Flames received outstanding performances from goalie Pat Riggin, who blocked 32 shots, including 17 in the final period; Don Lever, who scored two goals and assisted on two others, and Houston, who provided the death blow.
Coach Al MacNeil not only started Riggin, who had shut out the Capitals in the teams' last meeting, rather than Olympic hero Jim Craig, but he also battled Green so hard on the line matchups that referee Gregg Mardill warned him about his tactics.
"The game meant a lot in the standings," MacNeil said. "It didn't mean anythng to us and we could have laid back, but it mattered to the league and we gave it the best effort we could."
"Knowing MacNeil, I expected him to play it that way, and I'd to the same thing," Green said. "He treated it like it was a big game for them and I respect him for it."
The Capitals took a 3-2 lead during a first period in which Atlanta was hit with five penalties, Washington none. Each team connected on its first shot with the Flames' Garry Unger in the penalty box. First Lever scored the season's fourth shorthanded goal against Washington, then Edberg converted Robert Picard's pass for a power-play goal.
A great effort by Gustafsson, who knocked Phil Russell off the puck and set up Picard, sent Washington ahead, but Lever matched it on a breakaway 14 seconds later.
After the Capitals were held scoreless while enjoying a two-man advantage for 1 minute 38 seconds, another Atlanta penalty provided the opportunity for Ryan Walter's deflection of a Picard slap shot.
Washington's inability to clear the puck from in front of its goal enabled Houston to knot the score late in the second period.
In the third period, the Capitals swarmed around Riggin, who blocked 11 shots before a Mike Gartner drive caromed off the rear boards and came out in front, enabling Maruk to bat it in. The goal climaxed a frantic two-minute assault following a penalty to Atlanta's Paul Henderson and sent the crowd nearly hysterical.
Oddly, the clock went crazy a little later, with 5:43 remaining. The buzzer sounded and time was suddenly being added, rather than substracted. It could have been an omen; not long after than Houston connected.
The crowd raised season attendance to 441,491, for a club-record average of 11,037. Still, with a projected loss this year of about $1 million, playoff receipts would have been welcome. It is noteworthy that owner Abe Pollin was consoling Green afterward.
After the game, awards were presented to Walter, as the fan club's choice for player of the year; to Rick Green, as the media's selection for best defenseman; to Paul Mulvey, as his teammates' pick for most improved, and to Gartner, voted rookie of the year by the players and presented a trophy for topping the season's three-star vote. The most valuable player, chosen by management, will be honored at a luncheon next week.
The players then headed to the locker room, where they listened to words of thanks from Pollin and Gary Green. Then it was back onto the ice for that last ill-timed but somehow touching ritual -- smiling for hundreds of enthusiastic fans with cameras in the annual photo session. Some of them did manage to smile.