The Washington Capitals will honor Glen Currie's uniform Saturday night when they play the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Civic Arena. It will not be retired or hoisted to the roof; instead, the No. 12 on Currie's jersey will signal the next step in the Capitals' remarkable unbeaten streak.
"When they put that No. 12 up in the dressing room, it will really give us something to strive for," said Currie, whose callup from Hershey on Nov. 7 has been an instrumental factor in the team's 10-2-7 record since that date.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, another key figure in the surge may not be available Saturday. While the team flew here today from Minnesota, defenseman Brian Engblom returned to Washington for comprehensive X-rays of his upper chest.
Engblom was checked hard in the third period of Thursday's 4-4 tie with the North Stars. When he awoke this morning he was in considerable pain from what was believed to be either a bruised rib or torn muscle adjacent to the sternum.
The 11-game undefeated streak is the longest in the National Hockey League this season. It is the best by four in the club's history and it has been achieved against the toughest possible opposition.
It started the night before Thanksgiving in Edmonton, when goalie Pat Riggin blocked a penalty shot by Wayne Gretzky to preserve a 3-3 tie against the Oilers, the leaders in the Smythe Division.
Since then, the Capitals have beaten Chicago, the club with the NHL's best record, and Boston, fourth overall and the team that shares second ranking with Washington as the hottest over the last 19 games. Ties have come against the New York Islanders, who lead the Patrick Division, and Minnesota, unbeaten in nine games and tied with Montreal as second best in points.
Edmonton, the Islanders and Minnesota all came from behind in the last six minutes to salvage ties against the Capitals. In the first two, which came early in the streak, Washington was simply trying to hang onto its lead. Thursday at Minnesota, the Capitals dominated play throughout the third period, outshooting the North Stars, 15-8, and were most unlucky not to gain the victory.
"The only thing that kept us from winning was Gilles Meloche," said Ken Houston, who watched in disbelief as Meloche reached up to block his well-aimed rebound with the Capitals leading, 4-3.
"When you lead all that way, you've got to be disappointed with a tie," Currie said, "but if we play like that Saturday we'll get the two points and put Pittsburgh away. Right now, it's time to be thinking about the teams ahead of us, not the ones behind us."
The Capitals have been convinced since training camp that they could beat out New Jersey and Pittsburgh, whom they now lead by 11 points. An opening-night victory at Madison Square Garden added the New York Rangers to the list of beatables -- the Rangers trailed Washington by a point entering tonight's contest with the Islanders.
Now the Capitals are aiming higher. They do not want to advertise it, because they have no desire to give the Flyers extra incentive in Sunday's game at Philadelphia, but they feel they are better than the Flyers, also.
That leaves the Islanders, four points up before tonight's game, and slogging along at a 6-11-5 clip since Nov. 1. With memories of three straight Stanley Cups, nobody is counting the Islanders out, but there is general wonderment whether the Islanders retain the incentive to pull themselves out of such a deep tailspin.
Coach Bryan Murray seems to have the Capitals at a level to compete with anyone in the NHL. Some of the earlier games in the streak, like the 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh and the 3-3 tie against Winnipeg, were somewhat ragged, but since they rallied with two goals in the last four minutes to tie the Rangers a week ago, the Capitals have been playing superb hockey.
Boston always has been a jinx to Washington but the Bruins were limited to only three shots in the third period Sunday as the Capitals earned a 4-3 victory against a team that is 12-4-3 in its last 19 games.
Washington humiliated Los Angeles Tuesday, 7-2, outshooting the Kings by 36-21. Then on Thursday it kept the momentum rolling against a Minnesota team that also played very well.
"I'm really unhappy that we didn't win," Murray said. "But we went in there and played awfully well. Eighty percent of the game we were in good control and, except for some unlucky bounces and some great saves by Meloche, we would have put it away. Most of the guys are going good and I just hope they can keep it rolling."
A major factor in the last three games has been the resurgence of Dennis Maruk, who has five goals and three assists. Over the 11-game streak, Maruk shares the goal-scoring lead with Mike Gartner at eight and is tops in assists with 10. Other offensive forces have been Rob Carpenter, with five goals and eight assists, and Milan Novy with six of each.
The defensive standout had been Engblom, plus 10 over the 11 games while chipping in two goals and seven assists.
Thursday, Engblom dove across the ice to knock the puck off the stick of Minnesota's Bobby Smith, who had been set up in front by a series of excellent passes. Later, Engblom was struck in the side as he went down to block a shot, rose slowly and still dove to smother another drive on the same shift.
The goaltending has been steady, with Al Jensen posting a 3.17 goals against in six games, Riggin 3.20 in five.
Falling behind has not troubled the Capitals during the streak, as they have scored the first goal in only four of the 11 games and have come from behind against everyone except the Islanders and North Stars. In the third period, despite the three late game-tiers by the opposition, Washington has outscored its foes, 18-13.
For Pittsburgh, Saturday's game has been billed as a must-win situation in the Penguins' playoff pursuit. Washington, which so often has come up short in such circumstances in past years, is hoping to convey a formal transfer of also-ran status to the struggling Penguins.