For four of the last five seasons, the Washington Capitals have led the National Hockey League in injuries, if nothing else.
This season started the same way, with Timo Blomqvist suffering a broken jaw and Howard Walker a separated shoulder even before opening night. In the third game of the regular season, Mike Gartner suffered a badly bruised hand that hindered his play for weeks, and sore knees kept Ryan Walter from skating at full speed.
Now, however, as they open a weekend home-and-home series against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight at Capital Centre, the Capitals are at the peak of physical condition. Carrying a three-game unbeaten streak and coming off a team-record 51 shots in Wednesday's 7-1 rout of Colorado, the team is on a mental high, too.
"One record will fall tomorrow," Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday, referring to Washington's history of never having beaten the Flyers in 15 meetings at the Centre. "If we go pretty well, and we should, that will be a heck of a hockey game."
Murray is an advocate of playing with pain, so long as there is no possibility of an injury worsening. Trainer Bill Bozak has a similar philosophy and thinks it has strengthened some players, where a layoff would have been detrimental.
"If you're really worried about injuries and make them a major concern, then they'll happen," Murray said. "If you take a positive approach, you don't seem to get those problems. Of course, there's no way of preventing some major injuries, but you can keep guys from turning the little ones into something to be concerned about."
One player who has refused to let injuries stop him is winger Bengt Gustafsson, who has missed only nine games in three seasons despite bruises over most of his body and a recurring stomach ailment.
"The injuries are part of the game," Gustafsson said. "You fix them up and you play. The only time I've felt great was the first game of the season, and then I didn't play too good."
Gartner landed on his right hand in a fall to the ice in Boston and for weeks thereafter he could not shoot properly, although he did not miss a game.
"I never make excuses," said Gartner, who declined to cite the hand as an explanation for his slow start. "When I'm out there, I give 100 percent. But I was concerned because I was giving 100 percent and the team was only getting 50 percent back."
"The tendons were badly stretched and he had no power in the hand," Bozak said. "We had to pin each tendon. But it was suspended so he couldn't overstretch it and, because he kept using it, he strengthened it to where it's just about 100 percent."
During one stretch in October, Walter was having both knees and his left wrist taped. Last winter, he was so sick he was barred from all practices, even the brief game-day skate. But he continued to play; his consecutive-game streak is now at 226.
Blomquist recovered sooner than expected from his broken jaw and has become one of Washington's better defensemen. He still wears a retainer, designed by Bozak, around his head, but he said it had become so comfortable that he does not notice it is there.
Walker has been slow to rebound from the shoulder separation, suffered in an Oct. 2 exhibition against the Flyers, but he is now 100 percent physically.
Although Rick Green was troubled by both a groin pull and a sprained right wrist, he did not miss a game and is now much improved. Tim Tookey, bruised knee, and Greg Theberge, hip pointer, are sound after enforced absences.
While the Capitals are at their healthiest point in several seasons, the Flyers are hurting on defense. Bob Dailey is out with a broken ankle and Frank Bathe has been forced to bed by a herniated disk. However, Behn Wilson will be available for the weekend games while the Flyers decide whether to appeal his four-game suspension for spearing Reijo Ruotsalainen of the N.Y. Rangers.
Left wing Torrie Robertson joined the Capitals from Hershey in midpractice yesterday and skated on a line with Jim McGeough and Bob Kelly . . . Murray is giving Alan Hangsleben a shot on defense, which Hangsleben prefers . . . There will be no radio broadcast tonight.