On Nov. 20, the Washington Capitals defeated Calgary, 4-2. On Dec. 21, they beat Philadelphia, 6-0. On Jan. 15, they stopped Los Angeles, 3-0. That is the extent of the Capitals' success against the top 10 teams in the National Hockey League, those clubs that are .500 or better.
Saturday night the Capitals met one of the top 10, the Buffalo Sabres, at Capital Centre before a sellout crowd of 18,130. The visitors were shocked in the early minutes, first when their star center, Gil Perreault, crashed into a goal post and was carried off on a stretcher, suffering from what turned out to be three cracked ribs.
Not long after, Rick Smith's long shot deflected off a Buffalo skate into the net to give Washington a 1-0 lead. All the ingredients were present for a fourth scalp to be added to the above list. Instead, the Sabres regrouped and overpowered the Capitals' defense for a 7-4 victory. Buffalo had a 41-24 edge in shots, prompting Coach Roger Neilson to say," I though we played a strong game and except for Mike Palmateer we could have been in double figures."
Palmateer, making his first appearance in the Washington goal since Jan. 4, received less praise from Washington Coach Gary Green, who said, "It was his first game back and like everyone else, he made some mistakes out there. And I mean like everyone else."
Green himself erred when he chose to bench defenseman Jim McTaggart and go with five defensemen and 12 forwards against the swift Sabres. The reasoning was sound, however: Buffalo usually dresses four lines with Danny Gare double shifting and Green wanted to match up. After Perreault's injury, however, Buffalo consolidated its forwards into three lines and skated the Washington defenders into the ice.
With three extra forwards available, Green began tinkering with his regular lines, moving Glen Currie onto left wing with Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner in Paul Mulvey's place; using Mulvey with Dennis Maruk and Jean Pronovost, and even putting Maruk between Walter and Gartner. The result was some long-awaited offensive spark, but nothing could overcome the defensive breakdown.
"We've been in an offensive slump and we've been excelling defensively," Green said. "Tonight we felt we'd do better offensively and we did, but we let in six goals and an empty netter. We have to find that happy balance. When you score four goals, you should win the hockey game."
Four goals should be enough to beat Winnipeg Tuesday, but against the NHL's top 10 there is reason to believe four is not enough. In the last four weeks, the Capitals have scored four or more goals on four occasions. They defeated the last-place Jets, 5-3, but lost the other three to Montreal (7-4), the New York Islanders (6-4) and Buffalo (7-4).
"Facing a team in the top six, we know we're going to have our hands full," Green said. "We have to take our lumps there, try to squeeze out as many points as possible against the teams above us and make sure we don't lose to the teams below us."
Green said his club's ability to handle the NHL's better teams was no admission that the Capitals could not advance past the first round of the playoffs and he reached back to his junior coaching days in Peterborough, Ontario, for an example.
"Funny things happen in playoffs," Green said. "You can lose every game to a team in the regular season and still get hot in a playoff series. When I was at Peterborough, we played 10 regular-season games against the Ottawa 67s and Bobby Smith and didn't win any. But in an eight-game playoff series (one was tied) we beat Ottawa to go to the Memorial Cup.
"We'll worry about the playoffs when the playoffs come. I just wish they were starting tomorrow."
If they did, the Capitals would be facing Montreal.
Whether Bengt Gustafsson will be ready to face Winnipeg is questionable. He collided with teammate Guy Charron in the third period and suffered a strained left shoulder, the one that was dislocated in December.
Saturday's crowd marked the 16th home sellout in the Capitals' seven-year history. Of those 16 games, they have won only one, a 4-2 conquest of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 25, 1977.