It was just one of those games, the kind the Capitals used to have so many of each season. Tonight's 8-3 loss to the New York Islanders was described by Mike Gartner as "the worst we've looked in a long, long while," and the candid Gartner was hardly exaggerating.
The Islanders, who had come into the game tied with Washington for second place in the Patrick Division, took immediate command and never let the Capitals get into the race. A 4-1 lead after the first period ballooned to 8-2 in the second, thanks to a hat trick by Mike Bossy, who scored twice 37 seconds apart.
"The turning point was the first play of the game," said Coach Bryan Murray later. "They intercepted our first pass, turned it into a goal and they took it to us."
That play was begun by rookie defensemen Scott Stevens, who tried to shoot out from the corner. Instead his attempt was picked up by Clark Gillies, whose rebound was converted into a goal by Mats Hallin at 1:16.
"We just fought the puck all night, and we certainly made them look as good as they possibly can," Murray said. "We never took a body in the first period, and that first period just put us out of it. It looked like a lot of guys were struggling for us."
Most of the Capitals were struggling, in fact. Every chance Washington had to take control of play turned into an Islanders rush at Al Jensen. "Oh, we had the opportunities, all right," said Rod Langway. "But our discipline broke down. It's not that we let up; they (the Islanders) had the flow. We coughed up the puck at the blueline, and you can't do that against them."
Not tonight, anyway. The Islanders, conscious of the fact that they had skated through several slumps this year, were primed for this game. "We wanted to go out and prove we were the New York Islanders," said Bossy. "We wanted to prove we are not a third- or fourth-place hockey team, that we are still as dominant as we have been. That was one of our goals going into this game."
Washington found that out early in the evening. After Hallin's opening goal, Gillies scored just over three minutes later, before Ken Houston was able to slip one past Rollie Melanson at 9:38.
But that goal scarcely made a dent in the Islanders' attack. Denis Potvin's unassisted goal, followed by John Tonelli's, finished off the first period, and Bossy began the next in the same fashion.
Dennis Maruk made a determined run at Melanson halfway through, but again, the single Capitals goal had little chance against New York's tidal wave.
Murray wondered aloud if a day off on Monday had caused the Capitals to falter. "We've had three occasions when we've been beaten like that this year (against Buffalo in October, Los Angeles last month and tonight) and each time it came after a day off," he said. "There'll not be another day off for this team for the balance of the schedule. It just looked like we were not sharp, with all that running around. We were so certain we'd play well against them."
But the Capitals did not. "Our preparation for this game just wasn't done right," Gartner said. "I think it was really three days off, not just one. At Wednesday practice, I know we didn't practice as hard as we've done."
The Islanders had done their homework, short-circuiting the Capitals by preventing them from breaking out of their zone. In the third period, they only had three shots on goal, none of which went anywhere, but, then, it hardly mattered.