A year ago, the top centers in the National Hockey League rated each other for a survey commissioned by Goal magazine. Washington's Ryan Walter ranked second defensively, behind Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke; offensively, Walter made about as much of an impression as the Capitals' pre-Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot.
Suddenly, however, Walter has become most offensive to NHL goalies. In 34 games, he has scored 20 goals, only four short of his total last season.
If the raw figure is a shock to those who had stereotyped Walter, the basis for the turnabout goes back a while, to experiments with various sticks and to summer-long exercises that have helped Walter develop a deadly wrist shot.
"I've tried sticks from five different companies over the last three years, and I've finally settled on one I like," Walter said. "It's the most flexible stick there is and it's perfect for a wrist shot. Most other players prefer a stiff stick for slap shots, but I've switched around until I found what I wanted.
"And all last summer, even while I was driving across Canada, I squeezed my wrist, to make it stronger. It's paid off. Almost every goal I've scored has come on a wrist shot. I don't have one on a slap shot. A lot of wrist shots are going in this year, because the league is getting quicker and it's quicker to get off a wrist shot than to wind up for a slap shot.
"Another thing I've done is keep my head down when I shoot. They say about Mike Bossy that he never sees a goal go in; he knows where the net is, so he just puts his head down and shoots. I haven't seen many of mine this year, and if I'm not looking for a spot, the goalie doesn't have a clue where I'm shooting the puck."
Ten of Walter's goals have come on the Capitals' new, improved power play. A year ago, he scored only four extra-man goals.
"Obviously, our power play has helped increase my scoring," Walter said. "We work a diamond four and other teams don't know how to defense it, because we have so many options.
"Darren Veitch is at the point and he can shoot. Dennis Maruk is at the side and he can shoot. With a threat like Dennis on the outside, the slot is open consistently and he's been setting me up there for a lot of chances."
Walter was giving away no secrets to the New York Rangers, who visit Capital Centre tonight at 8. Although Washington's power play is clicking at an all-time high of 22.9 percent -- 26.1 since Bryan Murray took over as coach Nov. 11 -- the Capitals are 0 for 9 against the Rangers. Conversely, New York, which ranks 20th in the 21-team NHL, is 0 for 9 against Washington.
"We were lucky their power play was worse than ours," Murray said after the Capitals won in New York on Sunday, 3-2. "Everybody has seen our power play now, so it's time to change the system."
Murray made no changes for Wednesday's game against Boston, because the Bruins have a reputation for not bothering to scout the opposition, and the Washington power play rebounded with a four-for-four effort. There will be adjustments, tonight, however.
Regardless, Walter will be concentrating on more than just shots at the net. He is considered as unselfish a player as there is in the sport; Walter has scored those 20 goals on only 78 shots, for a success ratio of 25.6. Last year, among those with 20 or more goals, only Charlie Simmer of Los Angeles was more accurate.
"Everybody loves to score goals, but it's not a priority," Walter said. "I'd just as soon win a big faceoff or do a good checking job on a big line. You have to score to win, though, and if I'm in position to score, fine."
Tim Tookey, who sat out the Boston game, returns to action tonight, with Bengt Gustafsson idled by pulled tendons in his left ankle . . . Winger Don Maloney, after missing 25 games with a knee injury, is back in the Rangers' lineup . . . Barry Beck, the Ranger captain, will be serving the fifth of a six-game suspension for coming off the bench to fight Pittsburgh's Paul Baxter Dec. 14 . . . Tickets for the NHL All-Star Game Feb. 9 go on sale Monday, priced at $17.50, $14 and $10.