No gift in fancy wrappings under the Christmas tree this morning could mean so much to the Washington Capitals as the 14-game undefeated streak that has lifted them to instant status among the National Hockey League's elite.
Accompanying the streak, which has doubled the best previous in the team's eight-year history, are numerous corollaries: The team is unbeaten in 12 straight home games, a club record; six in a row on the road, tying a club record, and 10 straight against Patrick Division opponents.
Goalie Al Jensen, with three consecutive one-goal games on the road, has become the NHL's top goaltender, with a 2.43 goals-against average, to 2.46 for runner-up Pete Peeters of Boston. Jensen, beaten only once in 14 decisions, is unbeaten in nine straight appearances, another club record.
All those statistics are delectable, and the team's position two points from the Patrick Division lead (tied with Philadelphia with 41 points, to the New York Islanders' 43) is a heady one. But the most pleasing aspect of the Capitals' success is the way everyone on the roster has contributed.
Excellent defensive games in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Long Island were achieved without Brian Engblom, who is out with a cracked rib.
In Thursday's 5-1 victory over the Islanders, the Capitals' first victory in Nassau Coliseum, defensive heroes included Timo Blomqvist, who spent much of last season traveling between Washington and Hershey; Greg Theberge, considered a power-play specialist, and rookie Scott Stevens, now a leading candidate for the Calder Trophy.
Blomqvist, 21, has been playing with bruised ribs tightly strapped since Engblom's injury. In the second period Thursday, he took a heavy hit from behind that caused considerable pain. It was iced between periods, and Blomqvist finished the game plus-three.
"I hate to watch when the other guys are playing," he said. "I didn't come here (from Finland) to listen to the radio. It's a long way, and I came to play hockey."
Blomqvist was paired with Stevens, who has looked surprisingly good all season while being partnered by the heady Engblom, an all-star. On this occasion, it was Stevens who was carrying the puck, and doing it very well.
"With Brian, he does the work; Timo gives the puck to me, and I get a chance to do more with it," Stevens said. "I was doing the little things Brian told me and the game gave me more confidence. Things are going real well. It's unbelievable."
Theberge played regular shifts with Rod Langway, an all-star, who continued his intense play. Theberge was steady; the mistakes that often have plagued him in the Capitals' end were absent.
"Bryan (Murray) used me well, he kept the rotation going and he gave me a lot of confidence," Theberge said. "The team has pulled together and we're so close. Everybody is doing his job. There has been solid team unity during the whole streak."
In addition Thursday night, the fourth line was doing a good job, too. With Alan Haworth suffering from a virus, Ted Bulley made his first appearance since Dec. 4 and Craig Laughlin, a right-hand shot, was able to shift to his natural spot at right wing. They had eight shots on goal, with Laughlin scoring the goal that put the game out of reach, 4-1.
Perhaps Laughlin, off his brief NHL career, can be considered a lucky charm. A year ago, he was promoted from Nova Scotia to Montreal just in time to play a key role in the Canadiens' 16-game unbeaten streak, longest in the league last season.
"The first couple of games I played, we got beat, and I thought they'd send me down," Laughlin said. "Then the team went on the streak. I had a lot of first goals that got the team rolling. I played with (Pierre) Mondou and (Mario) Tremblay and it was a lot like playing with Ted and Gus (Bengt Gustafsson) and Alan."
Said Murray: "One of the most satisfying things to me is that early in the year a lot of guys were not content if they didn't play every third shift. Now we have four lines, pretty much alternating, and everybody is happy."
The players were off yesterday and today, as specified in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the players association. They are scheduled for a brief skate Sunday morning, then face the Philadelphia Flyers at Capital Centre Sunday night.
Despite the holiday, the streak and the Flyers were not far from the Capitals' thoughts.
"This is typical of a winning streak," said Doug Jarvis, once part of a 28-game unbeaten streak in Montreal. "You get things rolling, the bounces go your way and it's contagious. You want to keep pushing, not to let up and risk losing it."
"The streak is an incentive, but you have to look at each game as it comes," Langway said. "If you win a big game and then tell yourself, 'These next two are no sweat' and look ahead to another big game, you'll lose the streak.
"I think our most important game was the one in Philly. We were down, 1-0, for 55 minutes, but we didn't change anything. We kept working, we finally got to them, scored three goals and proved the system worked. We have to play that way every night and not let anything distract us."