The men of April did it again last night. The Washington Capitals defeated the powerful Montreal Canadiens, 3-1, at Capital Centre and brought hundreds of happy fans onto the ice for the annual postfinale autograph session.
During their eight years, the Capitals have posted a winning record in April, 13-10-2. The disasters of the six previous months have combined to keep them idle once the regular season ends, however, so fans can only speculate whether the team could maintain that April pace in the playoffs.
The last two seasons Washington has finished 17th in the 21-team National Hockey League, missing a Stanley Cup berth by one position. This time the Capitals finished 16th, despite a more difficult schedule, but the rules have changed, and their last-place status in the Patrick Division sent them on an early vacation again.
Although Montreal finished with 109 points and the NHL's third-best record, the Capitals won the season series, 2-1, and the Canadiens are winless in their last seven visits to the Centre.
Montreal rested three of its stars--Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey and Keith Acton--and a fourth, Steve Shutt, is nursing an injury. Still, there were some hungry youngsters wearing les bleu, blanc et rouge, and Washington needed to turn in one of its better efforts to win.
The Capitals' kiddie korps provided all three goals. Bobby Carpenter and Chris Valentine scored in the second period on power plays, the 32nd goal for Carpenter and No. 30 for Valentine, a 10th-round draft choice who finished with points in his last eight games. Then Lee Norwood increased the lead to 3-0 on a sensational goal at 35 seconds of the third period.
Norwood skated past ex-Capital Robert Picard at the Montreal blueline and, despite a hook by trailing Pierre Mondou, hit a backhander between the legs of goalie Rick Wamsley.
"I was on the move and I caught him (Picard) standing still," Norwood said. "I was hooked, but I reached out and tapped it through his legs.
"This is a big win. It's a sign of things to come. We just have to get the attitude that we can win in this league, and we'll win consistently."
Montreal's Mark Napier ruined goalie Al Jensen's shutout bid with 8:38 left, on a short-side drive from the left-wing boards. The Capitals stayed two up the rest of the way, however, and the applause from the crowd of 12,753 began building with a minute to play.
"This is a very good way to end the season," said Coach Bryan Murray. "To go into Toronto, where a lot of guys are from, and play a pretty good game to beat them, and then to come home and beat Montreal, it's a good feeling to begin planning for next year.
"The fans responded well tonight. They were charged up to a degree, when they could have just figured with us out of the playoffs that they'd stay home. I think our guys played a very disciplined game and it paid off. But we still have to get four or five hockey players. How we do it, if we can do it, I don't know."
Dennis Maruk earned two assists and finished with 136 points, becoming the eighth player in NHL history to reach that figure. Saturday, he became the seventh man to get 60 goals in a season.
The Capitals have not lost a season finale since 1977, and it is owner Abe Pollin's custom to visit the dressing room afterward to offer congratulations and look ahead to next year. This time Pollin was absent from the Centre, as was his principal lieutenant, Peter O'Malley.
One minority owner, Albert Cohen, was present, but he declined to discuss speculation about major changes.
"He (Pollin) has got to be my spokesman," Cohen said.
The postgame scene on the ice, with hundreds of fans surrounding the players for the photo-autograph session, seemed to indicate that there still is a strong enough base to make hockey succeed in Washington.