It is a standard rule with the Washington Capitals that players do not inhabit the bar at the team's hotel on the road. So a reflexive curtain of silence fell Wednesday night when Coach Gary Green walked in on a dozen of his charges at the Velvet Glove Lounge in the Winnipeg Inn.
It was just a momentary lapse, Green smiled, ordered a round and jointed in the festivities. For this was a special night. Not only was it New Year's Eve, but the Capitals were celebrating a remarkable victory.
Down, 3-0, after 29 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets, the Capitals fought back to a 5-3 triumph, evening their record at 13-13-11. They also closed out 1980 in winning fashion: 31-30-19.
On individual notes, Jean Pronovost scored two goals, including the winner, for a career total of 382 goals and 750 points. And goalie Mike Palmateer assisted on Mike Gartner's wrapup, empty-net score for his sixth assist of the season, matching Gilles Meloche's NHL record.
"Sure, I'm glad to get that record," said Palmateer, who collected five assists two years ago. "Let' put it this way: I've only played 20 games (actually 23). I'm going to get 10 at least and set a record nobody will catch."
Palmateer was playing in his seventh straight game after alternating duties with Wayne Stephenson for the first two months of the season. He was weary after his physical involvement in Tuesday's game at Vancouver, when among other free-lance moves he took a charging penalty by skating to the blue line and crashing into the Canucks' Gerry Minor.
"My legs aren't good. What I need is a good night's sleep, said Palmateer, smiling as ususal.
Seldom, if ever, has a goaltender become so involved in a team's overall play. In the old days, a goalie merely stopped the puck. Then daring goalies began to skate behind the net to cut off the puck and maintain possession for their team. Now a few have become adept at making passes to defensemen. But none has Palmateer's ability to carom passes off the side boards to center ice, often setting up teammates for breakaways.
One such effort Wednesday night had unfortunate results, as Ryan Walter lost the puck in his skates, stumbled backward and fell into the boards. Winnipeg's Morris Lukowich pounded on the puck and Walter had to trip him to avert a breakaway. The Jets then utilized the power play to score their third goal.
"Can you imagine, Palmy was apologizing to me for the pass," Walter said. "It sure wasn't his fault. I was trying to control it and got it messed up in my skates and I fell. I must have really looked silly."
At that stage, the whole team looked silly. Wes Jarvis had stumbled off balance and bumped into the Winnipge net, while Yvon Labre, trying to pass behind the Washington goal, fired the puck off the cords and almost set up a Winnipeg score. One observer wondered whether the Capitals might have been celebrating New Year's a little early.
However, some big saves by Palmateer and two Winnipeg shots that struck goal posts a minute apart left the Capitals within striking distance. Then Dennis Maruk became a whirling dervish behind the Winnipeg net, setting up two scores by Pronovost and skating out with the puck to score his 27th goal.
Winning a game in which they played so poorly for 40 minutes added one more dimension to the Capitals, who in the past were able to win only when they played at maximum efficiency and the opposition stumbled a little.
So it was a game and a year to toast, and at midnight players and coaches exchanged handshakes, then Dennis Ververgaert kissed Bob Kelly's bald spot and talked of togetherness, and how much it means to a hockey team.
"I've played on both kinds, (Vancouver) where the guys went their own ways and (Philadelphia) where everybody thought about everybody else," Ververgaert said. "This club is like Philly and it's going to give people some things to remember. We're not just thinking playoffs. We expect to go places in the playoffs."
Today, their first winning year in the record books, the Capitals flew to Bloomington, Minn., to go about the task of making 1981 even more memorable.