The Washington Capitals have been assigned the worst laboratory possible Monday night for experiments designed to solve the conundrum of road-trip losses that have bedeviled them during the past two weeks.
The Capitals will be in the Montreal Forum, one of two buildings where they never have earned a point, to play the Canadiens (WDCA-TV-20 at 8 p.m.). In Calgary's Stampede Corral, Washington is 0-2; in the Forum, the team has failed persistently and is 0-20.
After winning twice and tying a third road test after Bryan Murray became coach, the Capitals have shown Jekyll-Hyde tendencies, depending on the ice surface. In their last four road games, the Capitals are 0-4, scoring 13 goals and yielding 29. Conversely, in the last six home games, all victories, Washington has scored 49 goals, given up 15.
Murray ran out of reasonable explanations for the situation Saturday night, when the Capitals were beaten here by the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-4, a costly loss that dropped Washington five points behind the fourth-place New York Rangers and 12 behind third-place Pittsburgh in the Patrick Division.
The three previous losses away from home could be written off for various reasons. In a 6-2 rout at Hartford Nov. 28, the Capitals were spent emotionally after a big home victory over Montreal the night before. A 9-4 defeat at Toronto Dec. 5 was written off to the loss of defenseman Rick Green in the fourth minute and too much individualism, traced to the Ontario roots of many players. The 7-3 beating at Chicago Wednesday saw an ailing Dave Parro give up four goals in the first period.
Saturday, however, Parro played a sound game in his first 60-minute effort since Nov. 21. Randy Holt contributed his third career goal, and the third line of Gaetan Duchesne, Wes Jarvis and Bobby Gould turned in a solid two-way effort.
But the No. 1 line of Ryan Walter, Dennis Maruk and Chris Valentine had a terrible night. Although Walter scored a power-play goal to extend his goal-scoring streak to six games and his point string to nine, his failure to press Pat Graham on defense led to the winning goal by Greg Malone.
Maruk, who let Mike Bullard sit in the slot unguarded to produce an insurance goal, was struck in the forehead by a puck late in the game and needed four stitches. "I should have gotten hit earlier," he grumbled in disgust. Maruk was minus five, Walter and Valentine each minus four.
"The most obvious thing to me was the way their third line (Graham, Malone and Doug Shedden) outplayed our first line," Murray said. "When you get that kind of a performance, including the winning goal, out of a line that's basically just out there to check, you're way ahead of the game.
"We were looking for breakouts on offense, and we weren't as concerned about the other end. I guess that's natural when you've been scoring a lot. But this was such a big game for us, at the start of a road trip against a division opponent. It gets tougher, that's the problem."
Another factor contributing to Murray's bewilderment was the continued ineffectual play of Mike Gartner, the only man on the team to be a minus player in each of the last four games. Gartner, closely checked by the opposition, has only nine goals this season.