The Washington Capitals, conscious of heavy breathing behind them, took some steps yesterday to keep playoff-hungry opponents from playing leap-frog.
The Capitals, only five points in front of 17th-place Hartford and facing a difficult five-game road trip in a week's time, need some victories in a hurry, preferably beginning tonight when cellar-dwelling Winnipeg visits Capital Centre at 7:30.
So Coach Gary Green has moved left wing Bob Kelly onto the No. 1 line, with Ryan Walter and Mike Gartner, while shifting Alan Hangsleben into Kelly's old spot with Dennis Maruk and Jean Pronovost.
Dave Parro, carrying that splendid 2.34 goals-against mark, will be in the nets. Pronovost will take a turn at right point on the power play, currently slumbering at two for 62. Also, there is a possibility that Pierre Bouchard, out since Dec. 12 with a slightly torn knee ligament, will return to action. Bengt Gustafsson, who strained his left shoulder Saturday, was put in the "good chance he'll play" category by Coach Green.
Gartner has scored 26 goals this season despite increasing attention from the opposition. The recent successful moves by Minnesota and Buffalo, which double-teamed Gartner while ignoring left wing Paul Mulvey, prompted the switch of Kelly onto that line.
"Coming down three on three you could see the opposition switch to the left," Green said. "If they do that with Hound (Kelly), they're going to get burnt. Hound has good speed, he's intense and he can put the puck in the net pretty regularly. He gives us a little more balance.
"I didn't want to take any quickness or aggressiveness away from Pee-Wee (Maruk), so I'm putting Hank (Hangsleben) there."
Mulvey, who has been struggling much of the season, will occupy the role Kelly filled in Philadelphia, as a spot man coming out occasionally to make some hits and generally wake up his teammates.
"I'm not dissatisfied with Mo's (Mulvey's) efforts," Green said. "We just need a little more offense."
Of the use of Pronovost on the point, a weak spot all season, Green experienced. We'll see what he can do. I still have high hopes . . . a good felling for the possibility of the power play turning around. We have 32 games left. If we should find the right combination and get it going over the last 25 games, that's the time."
Asked if he was concerned about the rest of the league closing ground on the Capitals, who were 10th much of November and December, Green said, "For sure. A lot of those clubs were pretty good clubs, like Toronto, that just started slowly.
"I didn't state any goal at the start of the season, but realistically we wanted to try to play .500 hockey and finish with 80 points. There's a snag at present, but with our defense back we've been following just about a .500 pace. We ran into that disastrous injury period again and there was not enough padding above .500 to hold the line. I'm confident if we play to our potential we can get there."
The Capitals, 16-21-11, desperately need to earn maximum points this week. After the Winnipeg contest, Vancouver comes in Thursday, then there is a Saturday night visit to Pittsburgh before a 5 p.m. Sunday game with Edmonton wraps up home activity for more than two weeks.
The road trip that follows calls for games at Vancouver, Calgary, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Montreal, all among the NHL's top nine teams.
Green yesterday advised his charges to think about nothing but Winnipeg, although the Jets never have beaten Washington in seven meetings, of which two were tied.
"Winnipeg has been a surprising team the last 10 games," Green said.
"I said when we beat them up there New Year's Eve that they'd be a spoiler the last half of the season. There's no real pressure on them, because nobody is expecting them to do well.They've been here since Saturday, they watched us play and they've practced here every day. This is almost like a home game for them."
The first and second teams to represent the Campbell Conference in the NHL All-Star Game at Los Angeles Feb. 10 will be announced today. There is hope that for the first time a Capital will be elected to the team, instead of merely serving as a required fill-in. The logical choice is Gartner, who missed practice yesterday with the flu. . . Half of a lengthy power-play drill yesterday consisted of five-on-three maneuvers. On one shift, Guy Charron, the lone defending forward, broke up three offensive rushes.