One year and three days ago, the Washington Capitals played in front of a crowd of boobirds. It was in Capital Centre and the unhappy fans were commenting on a 5-3 loss to Edmonton that marked the end of Danny Belisle's tenure as coach and the start of the Gary Green era. Before Green would win his first game on Dec. 1, the Capitals' record would decline to 4-16-4.
Saturday night, the Capitals once again were performing before boobirds, but this time the miserable folks were backers of the Hartford Whalers, who were being undressed by the visiting Capitals, 8-4, at the Civic Center. w
By winning, Washington boosted its record to .500 with a 5-5-7 mark. Even more significantly, the Capitals were reaching .500 on the road, 2-2-5, while matching the club record of two straight road triumphs.
"It's great to win on the road," said a bubbly Dennis Maruk, who forged a spot in the National Hockey League record book with his second straight hat trick. The book is vague on the point, but it is believed, at least in the modern era, that only Toronto's DARRYL sittler accomplished the feat before. It is possible nobody has ever matched Maruk's performance of scoring a goal in six straight periods.
"He's skating so much better," Green said of the swift little center who outraced Hartford's Mark Howe for a Mike Palmateer clearing pass and fired in his second goal of the night. "I told Pee Wee I didn't know anybody could skate that fast. He beat Howe, who is a lot faster than an average defenseman. He's got his jets back and I couldn't be happier."
When the fans were roasting Belisle 368 days ago, Maruk was sitting in the stands with a cast on his right knee, which had required surgery for torn ligaments eight games into the season. At the time, he had scored eight goals. This season, with those hat tricks, he is almost back at a goal-a-game rate, with 15 in 17 contests.
A lot of other players who are key performers for the .500 Capitals were not skating in Washington a year ago, either. Pierre Bouchard was on the injury list with Maruk, after suffering a separation of the collarbone and breastbone.
Bob Kelly and Dennis Ververgaert were helping the Philadelphia Flyers to a 35-game unbeaten streak; Jean Pronovost was struggling with limited ice time in Atlanta; Alan Hangsleben was keeping the Hartford fans happy; Mike Palmateer was beginning a feud with management in Toronto; Pat Ribble was laboring in Chicago; Darren Veitch was exciting the folks in Regina with a lot of power-play goals; Howard Walker was playing for a University of North Dakota team that would win the NCAA championship.
There have been many changes in one year, but few would argue that the key to the Capitals' performance flip-flop is Green. He seems to have the answer to any problem that may arise, whether it concerns tactics or motivation.
Saturday night, instead of the usual pregame briefing on the opposition, Green merely listed the Whalers on a blackboard in alphebetical order.
"I told them to concentrate on playing our game, to think about ourselves rather than them," Green said. "We're in a pack in the middle and it's time to pull out. We've proved we're as good as a lot of other teams, with our seven ties, but we have to prove we're better."
The Capitals, who would have been thrilled to join a pack a year ago, went out and proved without a bit of doubt that they were superior to the Whalers. They also displayed a high-powered offense, after having scored three goals in each of the last four games.
"There comes a time when you're due offensively," Green said. "We were held to three goals a game long enough. I do wish we'd do it more evenly, but I'm not complaining."
Today Green flew to Buffalo, for a prescouting look at the Quebec Nordiques, whom the Capitals play Tuesday in Quebec City. Presumably, he will have some more pertinent information for his players before that contest. No doubt he will impress upon them the fact that no Washington team ever has won three in a row on the road.
Whatever the ploy, nobody is likely to laugh. The Capitals, like Tug McGraw, are believers.