After showing the hometown crowd that they can indeed win a few in Capital Centre, the Washington Capitals take their .500 hockey act on the road, beginning a four-game tour of Western Canada tonight in Winnipeg.
Coach Bryan Murray, breathing easier now that his 7-7-3 team is in third place in the Patrick Division, said yesterday he anticipates a chance for the Capitals "to win at least a couple games, maybe more" while playing the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers.
"We'll have our work cut out for us in every building, with none of them 'easy' games," he said. "Edmonton happens probably to be the best of the teams we're playing (there), but it still is no easy trip."
The long-distance scouting of the hinterland clubs began earlier this week. Murray was busy reviewing a tape of Edmonton's Tuesday 4-2 loss to the New York Islanders. "Terry (Murray, assistant coach) went to Winnipeg Wednesday to scout (the Jets) against Buffalo, so we'll have that report," he said. "And we'll go from Winnipeg to Edmonton (on Saturday) to see them play Vancouver."
Washington plays Vancouver on Sunday, before going to Calgary, and finishes the trip Wednesday in Edmonton, a televised game. "Between the tape, our game with Calgary here and live scouting, we'll have a pretty good idea of what we're doing by the time we get there," Murray said. "Vancouver has played pretty well -- not great, but well."
The Capitals, meanwhile, are enjoying the kind of success rarely, if ever, associated with the team. On Nov. 7, they got their first home ice victory of the year against Hartford, and haven't been beaten in five games: a tie against the New Jersey Devils, plus victories over New Jersey, the Islanders and Calgary.
Clearly, the Capitals have upgraded themselves. "There are a couple reasons for it," Murray said. "The fact that we brought up (goalie Al) Jensen and he played well; going into Chicago (Nov. 3), we played a good solid game, and got a point out of it. Playing New Jersey back to back didn't hurt."
But getting more production out of his younger players particularly pleases Murray. "We've been able to use the kids and they haven't hurt us," he said. "The effort was always there, but I can see guys like Scott (Stevens), Alan Haworth, Timo (Blomqvist) playing with more confidence every game."
Murray is also grateful to see a few of hockey's unlucky bounces not coming his way anymore. "Even early on, we'd be playing so well, and we'd hit a post instead of getting a goal, and wind up losing, 2-1," he said. "The night we played Calgary, the Flames got back in it and then (Lanny) McDonald goes off with a major (penalty). It's the kind of thing that used to happen to us."
"We've reached the point," Murray went on, "where we know we can challenge teams, and not just Pittsburgh, either."