Although the Washington Capitals are virtually unbeatable, they have had difficulty finding a winning combination.
If that statement seems suited for "Alice in Wonderland," so does the Capitals' strange record of four victories, five defeats and seven ties. In the last seven games, Washington has compiled a 1-1-5 mark.
Had the National Hockey League discussed its implementation of overtime with the players, those seven deadlocks might now be transformed into victories an defeats, which would make it a little easier to evaluate the first one-fifth of the Capitals' season.
Regardless, this is the best start the Capitals have ever had. They have squeezed 15 points out of those 16 games and currently rank 13th in the 21-team National Hockey League. They expect to finish higher, but 13th is not bad for starters, considering that the team has never qualified for the playoffs in its six years.
"I would prefer a team to make mistakes early, to start off not poorly but at an average pace and improve on that, rather than come out of the box playing over their heads and decline," said Coach Gary Green. "That has a sagging effect performancewise. In my years at Peterborough, my teams always started out in midpack and then came on as the mistakes lessened and performance went up.
"This is no comparison to those years, but I know those results and I am confident that this team is capable of the same thing. The mistakes thus far have not been a result of lack of effort. The effort is there. Some games in and 80-game schedule, the punch just isn't there and I think it's commendable that of our 16 games, we've only been out of one."
Of the Capitals' five defeats, two were by one goal and two by two (both wrapped up by empty-net scores). Only in an 8-4 loss at Chicago were the Capitals outclassed.
On the road, where Washington teams traditionally have been as belligerent as the organist, the Capitals have lost only twice in eight games. Five of those other six were ties, but it has long been an axiom in the NHL that a point on the road is like two at home.
Oddly, it is at home that the Capitals have proven a trifle disappointing. They are .500 (3-3-2), but is also a fact that the tree losses have come to three of the NHL's top teams -- the New York Islanders, St. Louis and Los Angeles. When the schedule evens out, Washington should be in a good situation.
Most notable statistics of all are the Capitals ranking in goals against and penalty killing. They are fourth in each department, trailing only Buffalo, Philadelphia and Minnesota with the 49 goals allowed and following Hartford Calgary and Philadelphia with an 83.6 percent penalty-killing mark.
That is remarkable progress for a team that last season ranked 12th in goals against and 19th in killing penalties.
Of course, this club is far from perfect and its offensive statistics are not overwhelming. The circumstances yesterday prompted Coach Green facetiously to ask, "Has a team ever won the Vezina Trophy (for best goals-against average) and finished last in scoring?"
Only Boston and Edmonton have scored fewer goals than the Capitals' 52 and Washington's power play is near the bottom, as well. But Green is not complaining. Instead, it was noteworthy that offensive standout Dennis Maruk, following his hat trick that dumped Pittsburgh Wednesday night, 3-1, commented that his tentative play in recent games was a direct result of Green's instructions to concentrate on defensive play.
"We definately have to work on our power-play output and our offensive output," Green siad. "But I'd rather be in that position than being forced to work on our defensive game.
"We have made great strides in improvement in the defensive part.The Caps used to be a laughinstock in that matter. If i recollect, the team was 21st in goals against before I got here, and 21 in penalty killing.
"We have not tried to eliminate offense by creating defense. We have tried to tighten up our defense, to eliminate three-on-twos and two-on-ones.And I think we've succeeded. We've seldom been caught by other teams' breakaways."
Much of that improvement has come in the goal, where Wayne Stephenson, in contrast to last year's horrendous start, has compiled an excellent 2.45 goals-against mark. Newcomer Mike Palmateer, tossing out that debacle in Chicago, has posted a 2.74 record.
"The goaltending has been extremely strong," Green said. "It is so important, particularly on the road, to be able to rely on the goaltender. It passes on a lot more confidence to the rest of the team."
The defense has been surprisingly tough, thus far even overcoming the loss of steady Paul MacKinnon. That hole has been plugged capably by Alan Hangsleben, who started the season at left wing, and Green is likely to leave Hangsleben on the backline even when Rick Smith finally gets into action Saturday at Hartford.
The big man on defense, of course, has been Rick Green, who has overcome a sore ankle and a sore elbow to play some outstanding hockey.
"Rick has had a lot of ice time and he is responding well," Gary Green said. "I'm extremely satisfied with his play. Our whole defense has played well. I originally planned to use five defensemen and four lines a lot of the time, but now I'm satisfied going with six defensemen. Playing defense is a tougher grind physically under all that fore-checking pressure."
Playing defense for the opposition has become a tougher assignment, too, with the Washington forwards forechecking as no Capital club ever dreamed of doing before. It has taken six-plus years of ice charades to reach respectability, but it is finally here.
Owner Abe Pollin said, "I'd have liked to see more wins than ties, but I am satisfied this is a far superior team to last year. It is going to get better and before it's over, I think this team will make the town proud."
It might even make the town hockey conscious.
The road trip continues with games tonight in Harford and Tuesday in Quebec. There will be no broadcast or telecast from Hartford. The Quebec telecast has been canceled by a technicians' strike, but WTOP Radio will broadcast the game at 7:30 . . . Green flew to New Haven yesterday to watch the Hershey farm club play last night. Errol Rausse has been outstanding since returning from knee surgery and could be Washington bound soon . . . Bengt Gustafsson skated briefly yesterday at Fort Dupont. A decision on whether he will play against Hartford will be made this morning . . . Palmateer will start in goal as Green continues strict rotation . . . The stumbling Whalers have recalled defenseman Fred Arthur and center Michael Galarneau from junior teams . . . Tom Rowe, sent to Hartford in the Alan Hangsleben trade, has been struggling with only one goal this season.