The Washington Capitals, who have been merrily carving out a niche in the upper echelon of the National Hockey League, suddenly find themselves with some causes for concern.
Foremost is the condition of right wing Mike Gartner, whose injured left eye will keep him out of games here Friday and at Los Angeles Saturday.
Second, goalie Al Jensen has endured a couple of mediocre games after playing so brilliantly much of the season. The Capitals need a solid Jensen for the stretch drive and playoffs.
On an immediate basis, there is the question of how well the team will perform here, considering the Capitals' history of playing poorly on arrival on the West Coast. Additionally, the power play continues to give Coach Bryan Murray a headache.
Gartner's eye, struck by a puck in the third period Sunday, was examined Wednesday, but the hemorrhaging had not fully subsided and another examination was scheduled for Monday afternoon.
"There was progress, but there was still some blurriness," said General Manager David Poile. "Mike's situation will be reviewed on Monday. If everything is okay then, he could play Wednesday in Edmonton. But we're going to be very cautious. We want to be sure Mike is 100 percent before he returns."
Gartner's absence from Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Rangers in New York ended his consecutive-game streak at 248.
Jensen faced only 22 shots in New York and was shaky for the second straight outing. In his previous start, on Long Island Feb. 10, Jensen permitted eight goals in 27 shots.
"Al certainly is going through a period with some problems," Murray said. "He struggled against the Rangers. But I'm not overly concerned. Maybe what's wrong is that he's not playing as many games right now as he needs to stay sharp."
"We can't tamper with him," Poile said. "Every goalie goes through a stretch like this. We don't really know how good Al Jensen is. It will be a couple of years before we know whether he is a good or great goaltender. You have to be at a consistent level for a long time before you rate with the great ones."
The Capitals flew here from New York today, with a three-hour layover in Toronto. It is noteworthy that on their previous visit to Vancouver they jumped ahead, 3-0, but wound up losing, 5-3. That marked the only occasion this season that Washington was beaten after taking a lead into the third period.
"Jet lag has to be a bit of a factor," Murray said. "Even the little trip from Washington to New York bothered me and left me feeling tired, and I don't have to play. Extensive travel is a factor and it's probably one of the reasons the West Coast teams never have fared very well.
"It can be confusing coming out here from the East. You wind up going to bed earlier, because it's 1 o'clock body time when it's actually only 10 o'clock. But I don't think that was the real reason for our loss here last time.
"The turning point in that game came when (Stan) Smyl cross-checked Timo (Blomqvist) and hurt him and we didn't respond. They really came on after that."
The power-play unit has succeeded four times in the last two games, but its inconsistency has troubled Murray. During a two-man advantage lasting 1 minute 37 seconds Wednesday, with the Capitals trailing, 3-2, they failed to put a shot on goal. The crowd of 17,414 responded with deafening applause and the aroused Rangers quickly netted two goals.
The return of defenseman Darren Veitch, out since Oct. 27 with a broken collarbone, seemed to help the power play at times Wednesday. He earned two assists, as his shots were deflected into the net by Craig Laughlin and Bengt Gustafsson. But Reijo Ruotsalainen slipped behind Veitch to set up the final Ranger goal, scored by Mark Pavelich with Jensen caught out of the net.
"The Rangers were a quick team for Darren to step in and play against, but we have to get him in there and determine whether he can contribute," Murray said. "I think he can."
"My timing was a little bit off in certain situations," Veitch said. "I guess it will take a couple of games to get that--the sooner, the better. With Hershey, the fastest team we played against was Nova Scotia, but there's no comparison to the Rangers. It was totally different. You know it, but your timing doesn't know it."