The last time the Washington Capitals played here, in December, they stunned the Flyers, 6-0. The game also was noteworthy for 344 minutes in penalties, a figure sometimes misrepresented as 359, because the official scorer became so confused he added an extra, unassessed 15 minutes to Philadelphia's Mel Bridgman.
"You never go into a game hoping there'll be a battle, but you have to be prepared to battle anytime if that's what you need to do to win," said Washington captain Ryan Walter, who served 12 minutes for a conflict with Bridgman, the Philadelphia captain.
Wlater admits he will do just about anything to win, a trait that has caused many hockey followers to compare him with the Flyers' veteran center, Bobby Clarke. There are other reasons for comparison, too. For example, a recent Goal magazine survey of 25 outstanding NHL centers concluded that Clarke was the best defensive center in hockey, Walter No. 2.
"Yeah, I guess people do see us a lot alike," Walter said, preparing for a Tuesday rematch (WDCA-TV-20, 8 p.m.) that is most important to the Capitals' playoff hopes. "The last game I was in the box for a while and I watched Clarke very closely. I was impressed with his neutral ice play and his tenacity. Off the ice, he's a fine person, but on the ice I need to realize what he's trying to do to me.
"Last time in Philly he was talking to me all the time and it wasn't very nice. He said things like, 'Walter, your best year will never equal my worst.' And, 'You're not a leader, how can you lead that club?' It's intimidation and I think the comparison stops there.
"I don't think I could do that. If I do intimidate people, hopefully it's through clean, hard checks. Don't get me wrong. I'd do about anything to win. He's a winner and he is a good hockey player. But it bothers me a little bit.
"I just smiled that night in Philly. Their whole team was yipping and yapping the last two periods. So much of their game is intimadation."
"It says something about Walter, a highly intelligent, sensitive young man, that he would be upset by Clarke's verbal jabs, rather than by Clarke's verbal jabs, rather than by the high sticks and elbows that have been Clarke's more visible trademarks during a 12-year NHL career.
Walter has been high sticked in the mouth, on the cheek, near the eye and on the forehead, yet he always discusses such physical assualts with a standard comment: "That's oldtime hockey." Walter has amassed 134 penalty minutes this season, two more than Clarke, yet his own stick violations can be counted on one hand. He plays cleanly and quietly, but hard. Clarke plays hard.
To much of the civilized world, the men who collect six-figure paychecks for skating on indoor ponds, clad in short pants, garter belts and other peculiar paraphernalia, are largely unknown.
In recent years, however, two players have been able to transcend the claustrophobic limits of ice hockey. One is Gordie Howe, who by prolonging his career past his 52nd birthday proved that grandfathers are capable of more than tossing babies and tallying dividends. The other is Clarke.
Clarke has provided inspiration for years to those who must perform their daily chores while contending with diabetes. It was his disease that persuaded every team in the NHL, including Philadelphia, to pass on Clarke before the Flyers selected him in the second round of the 1969 draft.
A criticism in these pages of Clarke's tactics on ice prompted a reply, in classic grade-school scrawl, as follows: "Don't say anything bad about Bobby Clarke. I love him. I have diabetes."
Recently, a routine conversation with a noted hand surgeon, who was reconstructing a wayward son's severed nerve, turned to hockey.
"I started getting interested in hockey when I read about Bobby Clarke in a medical magazine," the surgeon said. "He must be a remarkable athlete."
Remarkable, indeed. Clarke enters Tuesday's game the possessor of two Stanley Cup rings, 301 NHL goals, 1,000 points and 1,106 penalty minutes. At age 32, though, he could be nearing the end of the line, paying the price of early retirement for all those hundreds of games in which he had just one goal in mind: to win.
"No player ever had more impact on his team than Bobby, in hockey or all of sports," Flyer scout Joe Watson, a longtime teammate of Clarks, said recently. "I can honestly say I never saw him dog a shift. Not one."
Televiewers Tuesday are advised to watch Clarke closely, because this might be one of the last opportunities to study his stick and elbows and moving jaws. It goes without saying that the Capitals will be watching him closely, too.