Connoisseurs of artistry on ice need not come to Capital Centre tonight; Wayne Gretzky's lone visit is scheduled for March 2. Those who appreciate the work ethic, however, will enjoy watching the New Jersey Devils and the Washington Capitals.
Forget the Devils' no-name roster, lack of speed, inept passing, 10-game winless streak and road uniforms that offend the eye. New Jersey comes to play, as the Capitals learned in a hard-hitting 2-2 tie Monday night at the Meadowlands.
"They're limited in goal scorers, but they're not limited in guys who work," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said yesterday. "A number of them don't skate that well, but they sure get there. If they work that hard, with that type of goaltending, they should stay competitive every game."
At least one of the Devils' names will be familiar to Centre habitues. That is veteran goaltender Chico Resch, who left Mike Gartner, Bobby Carpenter, Alan Haworth and Doug Jarvis wondering just what was necessary to put the puck in the net after he made sensational saves against them on Monday.
With Resch looking like the best goalie in hockey, the Devils beat the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, while losing only one of their first seven games. Although things have been a bit dry on the scoreboard lately, New Jersey still holds fourth place in the Patrick Division, one point ahead of Washington and two in front of Pittsburgh.
"If we play every night the way we did Monday, I think we'll be right there with Washington and Pittsburgh all season," Resch said. "A lot of things in that game reminded me of the way we started the season. I feel good because the team feels good. There's a lot of lightness and liveliness in the room."
General Manager-Coach Billy MacMillan is not upset by the lack of victories, either. After all, the Devils' last four games include three ties and a one-goal loss in Montreal.
"As long as they keep going like they did in the third period against Washington, I won't have anything to complain about," MacMillan said.
The Capitals will welcome the return of winger Bengt Gustafsson tonight. The Swede missed two games after St. Louis' Rob Ramage knocked him into a goal post Friday and his bruised thigh is still a bit tender, but he will be back to form a line with Dennis Maruk and Ken Houston.
Houston, along with defenseman Scott Stevens, ranks as one of the two major surprises for Washington thus far. He came from Calgary in a deal that was conditional on his health, because he has suffered from chronic hepatitis. So far, he has been outstanding, scoring seven goals and utilizing his 210 pounds to advantage in front of the net.
"I'm pleased with Ken so far," Murray said. "He's big and strong, he gets in the corners and he's willing to muck."
Murray is not so pleased with a few others, although he declined to name names.
"Some of them are disappointing not in their work, but in what they can contribute," Murray said. "Some of them have come to me, knowing they're struggling, and I've told them just to play and it'll come. There have been no ultimatums. I want to show them confidence."
Obviously, a list would include Gustafsson, who has scored only one goal while feeling the effects of a debilitating virus almost from season's start. Others who have not produced up to expectations include Maruk, seemingly coming around now after a slow start; Haworth, bothered by a preseason ankle injury; Jarvis; Craig Laughlin, and Ted Bulley.