Before tonight's game against Washington, the Hartford Whalers sat in their dressing room and looked at a tape of the Capitals' 5-2 victory over Montreal on Friday. When the Whalers eventually stepped on the ice, they were not playing the same team they had been watching.
Emotionally drained after Friday's triumph and Wednesday's frenetic 4-4 tie in Minnesota, the Capitals were overwhelmed, 6-2, by a Hartford team that under normal circumstances scares only its coach, Larry Pleau.
The setback brought back memories of a similar situation, in late March, when the Capitals were thumped by the Whalers at Capital Centre in another third-game-in-four-nights scheduling mishap. That defeat contributed mightily to Washington's failure to earn a playoff berth.
Terminated by tonight's collapse were the Capitals' seven-game unbeaten streak and their record of having won in all three previous visits to the Hartford Civic Center.
"I guess if we honestly look at it, we were tired," said captain Ryan Walter. "It was a tough game to run out of steam in. It's not a good excuse, but we certainly weren't on our game."
"I felt tired out there," said rookie Chris Valentine, who scored his third goal in four games as a Capital. "They jumped on us right away and we weren't ready."
Blaine Stoughton sent the Whalers ahead to stay after just 63 seconds, netting a rebound of an attempted jam from behind the net by Garry Howatt. Some good saves by goalie Mike Palmateer, plus off-target shooting by Hartford and help from the goal posts, kept the score to 1-0 at the first intermission.
The Whalers scored four times while outshooting Washington, 14-3, over the first 12 minutes of the second period, however, and Hartford's fourth victory of the season was assured.
Palmateer never moved on the fifth Whaler goal, a drive from the right-wing circle by rookie Mark Renaud, and Coach Bryan Murray mercifully removed the little goaltender, who had started his fourth straight game because Dave Parro's bruised left shoulder is still too painful to permit him to play.
Al Jensen made his Capital debut in relief of Palmateer and permitted only one goal in 13 shots, one of which he stopped with his chin.
The Capitals had scored in 16 of the last 18 periods entering this game, but Greg Millen stopped them for 44 minutes before Bengt Gustafsson connected off Walter's pass to reduce Hartford's lead to 5-1. Valentine cut it to 5-2 with 11:24 left, converting Gaetan Duchesne's drop pass, and there was a murmur of apprehension from the crowd of 12,134.
The uneasy feeling evaporated when Doug Sulliman fired from the slot and Jensen, leaning back, had it drop out of his glove into the net with 6:58 remaining. It was the second goal of the game and 10th of the season for Sulliman, acquired from the New York Rangers in the Mike Rogers deal.
"It takes a little pressure off me, with people still talking about the trade," Sulliman said. "It's good that the goals are going in. I don't have to worry about that part of my game. It makes it easier to do other things out there."
Each team had nine shots in the first period, but Hartford had the better ones and Washington was unable to put much pressure on Millen despite some defensive lapses by the Whalers.
"Early in the game they gave us a couple of two-on-ones and we couldn't capitalize on them," said Coach Bryan Murray. "It might have been different if we could have scored. They didn't make many mistakes after that."
Hartford had a 9-0 edge in shots in the first five minutes of the second period and goals by Ron Francis and Howatt boosted the Whalers' margin to 3-0. After saves by Millen and defenseman Blake Wesley blunted a brief Washington flurry, Sulliman and Renaud put it out of sight at 5-0.
"We were lucky to come out of the first period only a goal behind and we knew we had to come out flying," said Palmateer, kayoed for the first time since the New York Islanders chased him in 11 minutes on Oct. 23. "Instead, they were buzzing all around us and got about nine or 10 shots early in the second period. They just kept coming at us and we couldn't seem to do much. I guess we were still overexcited from last night."
This was the fifth time this season Washington has yielded six goals in a game. The Capitals are one of only three teams, along with Montreal and Minnesota, not to give up more than that.