No child seeking favors of the Easter bunny could have received a more welcome present than the Washington Capitals yesterday.
Goaltenders Pat Riggin and Al Jensen combined for a 26-save shutout and the Capitals concluded the regular season with a 3-0 victory over the New York Rangers at Capital Centre.
With 90 seconds left, most of the 10,219 fans rose and applauded, chanting "Let's Go Caps," and ridding the air of the boos and jeers and skepticism that filled the Centre during Wednesday's 7-1 loss to the New York Islanders.
Washington finished with 94 points, eighth best in the NHL, and 29 more than a year ago. It was also the first triumph over the Rangers on home ice since Dec. 26, 1980, with four defeats and two ties in the interim.
Bob Carpenter, Greg Theberge and Craig Laughlin produced the Capitals' goals, all against Ed Mio in the second period.
Most important, of course, was a return to defensive responsibility on the eve of the club's first-ever playoff series against the Islanders, opening Wednesday in Nassau Coliseum. The Capitals had yielded 20 goals in three straight defeats and panic almost became the order of the day.
"This was a big game to turn things around," said captain Rod Langway, who had summoned his teammates to a meeting at the Centre Saturday afternoon. "We gave up no goals and even though we know the Rangers aren't the Islanders and the intensity wasn't what it will be Wednesday, this is a great way to go into the playoffs.
"We had a lot of meetings earlier, but there was no need for a while. I thought yesterday was a good time maybe to deflate some egos and get us back in a team outlook. We had lost because we were playing individually."
Carpenter moved between Bengt Gustafsson and Mike Gartner yesterday in a return to the line that proved successful much of last season. It worked out so well that Coach Bryan Murray said the trio would be together Wednesday, as well.
Carpenter opened the scoring on a breakaway at 5:45 of the second period, after Gustafsson drew two Rangers to him and made an artful pass to free the young center. It was Carpenter's 32nd goal, matching the total of his rookie season a year ago.
Theberge made it 2-0 at 8:16, with each team a man short. Gartner set him up with a perfect pass to complete a two-on-one break after Barry Beck and Ron Duguay went off on a line change and left Dave Maloney to fend for himself.
Laughlin deflected Dennis Maruk's drive from the right point to complete the scoring at 13:01. It was Laughlin's 17th goal.
Gustafsson had played sparingly in the last two weeks because of a strained back and he was not given the go-ahead to play until game time.
"Gus being out so much, it was important that he play well and this game was good for him," Murray said. "He's going to be a very important guy for us in the playoffs. That line is going to have to do some pretty good things for us."
Riggin, who had yielded seven goals on 24 shots to the Islanders Wednesday, played the first period and stopped nine shots--Washington managed only four--as the teams resembled Austria and West Germany in the soccer World Cup no contest.
Jensen replaced Riggin at the start of the second period and stopped nine shots in each of the last two periods. He had by far the more difficult time and was able to foil breakaways by Rob McClanahan, Maloney and Mark Pavelich.
"Up until last night I didn't know if I'd have to play them side by side," Murray said. "When Pat shut them out the first period, I wanted him out of there to keep that feeling of confidence. Al doing the same gives us a lift.
"It's good for our players to have that shutout. They were disciplined and they weren't gambling and losing as they had been. This should stand us in good stead going into the playoffs. I'd hate to go into the playoffs having lost four in a row."
By winning, the Capitals extended their remarkable record in season-ending games to 6-2-1. Washington has not lost a regular-season finale since 1977.
The disappointing crowd prevented the Capitals from topping 500,000, as they finished with a record 495,050, an average of 12,376. That was 1,000 more than a year ago.
In pregame ceremonies, the club awarded Langway trophies as most valuable player and best defenseman, with Maruk honored for leading the team in scoring with 81 points and Gartner presented a trophy as the "fans' favorite."