Thirteen days ago, the Washington Capitals returned from Philadelphia with a four-game winning streak. Although the annual fan club party was scheduled the next night, Coach Bryan Murray held practice as usual in the afternoon and commented, "There are no more days off."
Since that high-water mark, the Capitals' ship has sprung some leaks, with only a come-from-behind victory over New Jersey preventing a washout over the last six games. Friday's 8-7 joker on April Fool's Day in Detroit ended the Capitals' chances of a second-place finish and gave them a three-game losing streak entering today's 4:30 regular-season finale against the New York Rangers at Capital Centre.
Empty of answers for a defensive slide that has yielded 20 goals over the three games, Murray yesterday changed his outlook. He canceled a scheduled practice session at Fort Dupont, suggested instead that the players confer, and trekked to Hershey with General Manager David Poile for a look at the Capitals' No. 1 farm club.
"I think we were getting all bogged down emotionally and physically," Murray said. "I was very upset after the game last night and rather than rant and rave and get upset again today, I thought it would be better for the guys to stay away from the rink and stay away from me and try to get their act together.
"What concerned me last night was that the goals were coming fairly easily and everybody suddenly forgot how we got our 92 points. It was just like practice--we'd get a three-on-two and they'd get a three-on-two. They got the last shot."
In Murray's absence, team captain Rod Langway held an afternoon meeting at Capital Centre, inviting each of his teammates to discuss any problems that might be bothering him.
Among the farmhands under surveillance last night was Dave Parro, who started the season as the Capitals' No. 1 goaltender but has been in Hershey since Nov. 1, while Al Jensen and Pat Riggin did a capable job in Washington.
Jensen and Riggin have experienced hard times lately, and Jensen's eight-goal yield in Detroit, coming after Riggin was beaten on seven of 24 shots by the Islanders, has left Murray in a quandary over his goaltending plans for the playoffs. He plans to use each goalie for part of the game today.
"We're giving Parro a look here and if he plays well tonight, we'll keep him in mind," Murray said. "We haven't even talked about the possibility of bringing him up, but if we can't get better work, we might have to.
"One thing we don't want to do is put guys in a no-win situation where we start threatening that we'll bring in two or three from Hershey to replace them. We've gotten an excellent response from our players so far and I still think they're going to turn things around."
The goalies are not totally to blame for the recent breakdown. Except for the Gee Whiz Line of Glen Currie, Gaetan Duchesne and Bobby Gould, which was reunited in Detroit and accounted for four goals and gave up none, there has been a lack of defensive responsibility among the forwards. Meanwhile, the defensemen have been running around in the Washington end, trying to do everyone's job at once.
The defensive shortcomings have been especially noticeable late in close games. Tom Rowe's game-winning goal for Detroit Friday marked the eighth time in the last 18 games that the Capitals have been scored upon in the last minute while failing to get a single last-minute goal themselves.
The Capitals have not lost four straight games at any time this season and it would be a severe blow to their playoff hopes if they ended the regular season in such circumstances. What the team desperately needs is a big victory over the Rangers, with some solid goaltending, to build a bit of momentum entering the best-of-five series against the Islanders.
It will be remembered that the last time the Capitals struggled to this extent, during a five-game winless stretch in January, they rebounded with back-to-back victories over Philadelphia and Chicago.
Winger Mike Gartner, who missed the Detroit game and yesterday's player meeting because of the flu, is expected to play today. Bengt Gustafsson, strained back, and Alan Haworth, bruised knee, are doubtful.
As part of the awards program at today's game, Ellen Johnson, 86-year-old widow of Ranger Hall of Famer Ching Johnson, will present the Ching Johnson Award for the Capitals' best defenseman to Langway. The winner the last three years was Rick Green, traded to Montreal in the deal that brought Langway here.