Although they failed to win on a five-game road trip, the Washington Capitals returned home yesterday exuding all the cheer of the holiday season. All the joy associated with receiving a Christmas tie, anyway, because of those five games the Capitals tied four, losing only to powerful Los Angeles.
Sunday's finale in Winnipeg certainly gave reason for happiness or thanks, or something other than the usual tied-up feeling of accomplishing nothing.
There was a satisfied buzzing in and out of the dressing room after Jean Pronovost connected with five seconds left to earn a 4-4 deadlock with the Jets in a history-making contest that saw Washington, for the first time in 492 games, collect two goals after pulling the goaltender.
Rick Green scored five seconds after Wayne Stephenson came off for a sixth skater, then the Capitals survived some wild moments, including a goal-mouth save by defenseman Pat Ribble, before Pronovost beat goalie Lindsay Middlebrook to send Winnipeg General Manager John Ferguson into a destructive rage in the press box.
The tie left the Capitals with the strange record of 3-4-5 and there can only be wonder what the team's status would be had the players not vetoed the NHL's provision for a five-minute overtime period. As it is, Washington's 11 points are worth a share of 12th place with the Stanley Cup-champion New York Islanders, a sure case of meeting someone halfway.
The key happening of the trip, of course, was the knee injury suffered by defenseman Paul MacKinnon in Denver. The resulting surgery promises almost full restoration of the knee to MacKinnon, who will be 22 Thursday, but he will miss the rest of the regular season and he and Rick Green are two people the Capitals cannot afford to lose.
Howard Walker, called up from Hershey, performed capably in his first two NHL games in Edmonton and Winnipeg and seems destined for a lengthy career in Washington. Alan Hangsleben, moved back to defense in Denver, struggled through a couple of games but seemed readjusted Sunday as he teamed with Walker for a steady performance.
Rookie Darren Veitch was unhappy in Winnipeg, because he made two costly errors that resulted in Jet goals and because he was being watched by a large contingent of family and friends that managed to raise a "Go Caps Go" chant on occasion.
If Veitch was discouraged, Coach Gary Green was not, and he tried to persuade Veitch to forget it -- well, just remember enough of the errors not to repeat them.
"He learns from these things and he's hurt now because he knows he cost the team a win, but the big thing is he's not repeating his mistakes," Green said. "He was beaten wide on one goal and he gave up another because he came off at the wrong time, but I guarantee you next game he'll be that much better because of it.
"If you don't give young players the opportunity to repay their debts and just sit them on the bench, then they go backwards and they won't help you. We're going to need a lot of help from Darren Veitch."
One player who did sit down was left wing Torrie Robertson, after he was caught wandering in the first period, with Winnipeg taking advantage each time. Robertson was sent back to his junior team in Victoria yesterday and he can be called up for eight more NHL games without losing his junior eligibility.
After Robertson was benched, center Wes Jarvis moved to left wing on the line with Guy Charoon and Dennis Ververgaert and played very well. It was Jarvis who came on as the sixth forward in the last few seconds and kept the puck in play to enable Pronovost to post the big goal. The resulting assist was Jarvis' first point of the season.
"Jarvie added a lot to that line," Green said. He's a smart hockey player and he's good to have around. I'm confident with the guy -- I had enough confidence in him to send him out as the sixth man -- and he's good to have around. He does anything I ask, with no complaints, and he plays with a lot of intensity."
Paul Mulvey was held out of both weekend games after being cross-checked in the ribs Thursday in Denver. He will play Wednesday, when Los Angeles visits Capital Centre, and presumably his return will cause Green to shuffle his lines once again.
"Mo could have played either night, but if he'd been bumped once, maybe it would still be sore," Green said. "Now he has three days to completely heal and he should be 100 percent."
There remains considerable question about the future of defenseman Yvon Labre, the original Capital. It is possible that Labre played his last NHL game Thursday in Denver, but with his history of tenacity it would be wise not to count him out.
"Yvon's knee isn't right; he knows it as well as we do," Green said. "He doesn't want to play if he's not sound and hurt the team. Maybe we'll rest him a couple of weeks and see how he comes along.
"Yvon is very important to this club, both on and off the ice. The guys respect him. He's the heart and soul of the franchise. We want to be sure he's treated right."