After his Washington Capitals had stifled the New Jersey Devils with an efficient defensive performance at the Meadowlands, Coach Bryan Murray said, "I was very happy with the way we played, but I'm afraid we could never get away with it at home."
Since that early November night, however, the Capitals have been getting away with it, to the extent that Capital Centre fans have been moved to reward big defensive plays with the standing ovations usually reserved for key goals.
If the methods sometimes lack excitement and the Capitals are scoring less, the fans nevertheless are enjoying it more. Winning is enough for people who over nine seasons rarely have experienced that feeling more than a couple of times without a debacle intruding.
If they win or tie tonight's home game against Los Angeles, the Capitals will extend their unbeaten streak to 10, matching the longest of the season in the NHL. They have lost only two of their last 17 games.
A year ago, after Murray was summoned to try to revive a dying 1-13 club, the Capitals responded to his common-sense approach with some remarkable victories. During November and December they thrashed Philadelphia, 10-4; Colorado, 7-1; Montreal, 5-2; Calgary, 9-3; Winnipeg, 7-3, and Toronto, 11-2. They also lost eight games by three or more goals.
"A different approach was taken by all of us," Murray said. "I let them play a lot of offense, partly because of the personnel and partly as a motivational factor. I wanted them to have a little fun, because they hadn't been having much fun out there.
"I remember that we did blow a lot of teams out. If we got two goals ahead, everybody flew and frequently the goals kept coming. But a lot of times we got caught and the lead disappeared. I don't think we had the personnel to play 3-2 or 4-3 hockey games. Now if we get two goals up, we try to make sure we win the hockey game. The team is more disciplined, there is a feeling of confidence, we're deeper in manpower, we're just a better hockey club.
"We have tried to play very, very basic. I tried to be sophisticated in training camp, but I gave it up very quickly. The responsibilities are very clear on defense and we've only tried to do a couple of different things offensively. We're not doing anything fancy out there.
"Each player has to know his responsibility and have confidence in it. I've tried to keep the lines together and create a stable situation. Everybody knows the big thing is to look after our end and to do his own job. Everybody has been part of the transition, too. The goal scorers are working much harder at both ends. I admit I'm a little surprised at the way the fans are grabbing hold. We've always sort of thought we had to entertain them, with emphasis on scoring. But they really seem to appreciate the defensive play.
"If Rod Langway or Brian Engblom or a Greg Theberge--the way he did last night against Boston -- breaks up a two on one, the fans are showing their appreciation. There have been standing ovations for a good, solid defensive play -- breaking up a two on one or a three on two, or if the goaltender makes a big play."
The fans still react with boos to inefficiency on the power play, and Murray becomes upset whenever his extra-man unit mishandles the puck between the bluelines. A year ago, the power play was one of the Capitals' highlights, as it produced a club-record 92 goals, for 22.1 percent success.
It will, therefore, come as a surprise to many that the Capitals' power play currently is operating at 22.9 percent efficiency, totaling 33 goals and recording at least one in 24 of the team's 29 games. It seems reasonable to speculate that dissatisfaction centers on the power play because many areas of past ineptitude no longer exist.
"We're not giving up the cheapy goals, through not backchecking or mediocre goaltending," Murray said. "We're playing pretty efficiently and a lot of guys are working hard. We'll lose some hockey games -- maybe -- because the other team played better, but I can't believe we'll have any more of those long losing streaks unless we get some devastating injuries."
Two seasons ago, the Capitals maintained a .500 record as late as Jan. 3, then suffered a series of injuries that decimated the defensive corps. The team recovered in March and April, posting consecutive road victories in Philadelphia, Detroit and Boston, but a 13-game winless streak in February and March was too much to overcome.
The Capitals have endured at least one double-figure winless stretch in each of their previous eight seasons. A year ago, they were doubly bitten, with an early string of 13 defeats costing Gary Green his job and a 10-game drought in January foiling Murray's efforts to recoup.
Aside from the successful shift to defensive play, the big differences between last year's club and this year's appear to be experience and confidence.
The offseason trades that brought Langway, Engblom, Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin, Ken Houston and Pat Riggin here injected the club with a winning attitude in place of the defeatism of the past. They also provided some depth, so that Murray is able to use four lines against opponents who frequently go with three. Instead of fading in the final minutes, the Capitals have been battling back in the late stages.
"Everybody is more at ease this year and we have a lot more confidence," said Bobby Carpenter.
"The leadership provided by Langway and Engblom is the big difference," said Randy Holt. "They're very vocal in the dressing room. When we were going to meet certain teams last year, we might say we would try our very best, but deep down we knew we'd lose.
"Now when we play those teams, Rod and Brian and Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin tell us how they beat them when they were with Montreal. They've got exuberance and assurance, and it rubs off. We've been getting good goaltending from Pat Riggin, and scoring from Ken Houston. And how about that guy over there?"
Holt was looking at rookie defenseman Scott Stevens, who Murray considers to be the outstanding player to come out of this year's draft. It is Stevens' excellent work, plus the untiring efforts of Langway and Engblom, that have enabled the Capitals to overcome the loss of Darren Veitch with a broken collarbone.
"If we were down before, it was tough to come back, because so few players were capable of scoring," said Mike Gartner. "Now anybody can score for us and different guys are putting the puck in the net. We've got four lines going and doing some kind of a job against the other lines."
"We're not really doing anything different, it's just that the guys are closer together," said Theberge. "We have more confidence in our building . . . There aren't as many rookies and the team is stronger and smarter.
"But for the one big thing that's made the difference, I'd have to say it's the trade. It's given us a few more different bodies and we're getting a lot of leadership from different people."