"I guess I lost another one, eh?" Yvon Labre asked, smiling, after John Tonelli of the New York Islanders joined a long list of those who have outpointed Labre during his nine-year NHL career.
If Labre lost another battle, however, he has won the war. The Washington Capitals yesterday shipped defenseman Howard Walker to Hershey, leaving Labre in undisputed possession of a berth on the club's 19-man roster.
"I'm happy with our defense," said Coach Gary Green and he should be, since the Capitals have yielded only three goals in two games. "All of them have played very well and I'm especially pleased with Yvon's and Butch's (Pierre Boutchard) play.
"Howard Walker played well enough in the exhibition and he will get a call if one of our defensemen is hurt. He needs game experience and Hershey is so close, just two hours away. We kept him here over the weekend just in case of injury, because once he's sent down he can't come back for seven days. And we wanted to make sure of Yvon's knee. It had held up well, but exhibitions are one thing. The physical aspect of the regular season is different."
Labre refused to accept Walker's demotion as a vote of confidence.
"I always felt that if the knee held up, I'd make the club," Labre said. "When I started in training camp I told (general manager) Max McNab that I was grateful for the opportunity to play again. I've been anxious myself to see how the knee would react.
"I have to wear an ice pack on it now, because it has to be cooled after practice, but I'm pleased with the way it's coming. It feels stronger every day."
Labre underwent surgery on the right knee in November and there were predictions then that he had played his last hockey game. He fooled the seers, though, and was a confident performer in training camp, while feeling some concern because the knee tightened up after practice. The solution to that problem turned out to be a simple one.
Labre was wearing a brace that had been fitted last spring, before he exercised the leg and built it up. As a result, the brace became too tight around the calf, causing the postpractice pain. The brace was refitted and there has been no further tightening.
It is unlikely that much can be done to improve Labre's fistic ability. The Capitals are satisfied that he never backs off from a challenge, and is able to survive the consequences. The bout with Tonelli was typical, except that where Labre once fought all comers without receiving much help, this time Bob Kelly was at his side as soon as the Islanders' Bob Nystrom became a factor.
"Tonelli gave me a stick right across the throat" Labre said. "I pointed to my stick and told him, 'I've got one of these, too,' and all he did was laugh. If he thinks he can do that all the time, I might as well get off the ice."
As candidates for his job have been learning for years, Labre has no intention of leaving the ice.
Defenseman Rick Green and left wing Paul Mulvey missed practice to have wounds checked by Dr. Pat Palumbo. Green, who bruised a heel tendon in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Islanders, and Mulvey, who bruised a knee in the first period but stayed in to the finish, are expected to play Wednesday against Montreal. . . Errol Rausse, who underwent knee surgery in May, was cleared for play by Palumbo and the Capitals assigned him to Hershey.