For all its artistic shortcomings, Saturday's 6-4 victory over the New Jersey Devils provided the Washington Capitals with a number of reasons for restrained celebration.
It was the Capitals' first victory in four tries against Patrick Division opposition and it enabled Washington to move into a second-place tie with the New York Islanders.
It also enabled the team to fulfill management's modest goal of 12 points in the first 10 games. That meant that each player will receive a new team jacket rather than paying the penalty for coming up short -- a $50 donation to charity.
If some folks could look back at the losses to Philadelphia and the New York Rangers and bemoan the club's 5-3-2 record, they could also take note of the fact that no Washington team in the previous 10 seasons had passed the 10-game mark at .500 or better. The best previous figure was 3-4-3 in 1980-81.
"We felt if we could achieve 12 points, we'd be off to a pretty good start," said Coach Bryan Murray. "So I can't complain. Sure, we might have been better, but when we left on the road trip with only five points in five games, I had some doubts that we'd make it."
Murray has not yet notified the team of the requirements for the next 10-game segment, but it promises to be a difficult assignment.
In the next three weeks, the Capitals play five Patrick Division games, including two against the New York Islanders, and also face their two toughest foes historically, Edmonton and Buffalo (twice).
The 10-game trial starts Wednesday in New York against the Rangers and Murray hopes he can get his penalty-killing unit back on the beam before it must face the Rangers' potent power play.
It will be remembered that the Capitals held a 4-1 lead against the Rangers here Oct. 20, until a major penalty against Alan Haworth provided New York with the opportunity to score on four straight shots, three during the power play and one four seconds after Haworth's penalty expired.
New Jersey, which entered the third period of Saturday's contest with a power-play percentage of 12.7, lowest in the NHL, scored on three straight extra-man situations.
Washington has given up 15 power-play goals in 47 opportunities for a success percentage of 68.1, worst in the league. A year ago, the Capitals permitted only 39 goals in 293 manpower shortages for 86.7 percent success, the NHL's highest figure in five years. "I thought the penalty killing was straightened out," Murray said. "But I guess we're having a tough time regrouping. We certainly struggled again, giving up three power-play goals in the third period.
"And some of the penalties were questionable -- not as far as the referee calling them, but the circumstances in which we took them. You don't want to get a penalty away from the play when you're protecting a lead in the third period."
Another problem for Murray to untangle is the Capitals' inability to maintain first-period momentum throughout the remainder of the game. Washington has outscored its opponents by 16-6 in the first period; it has been outscored 16-11 in the second and 13-12 in the third.
On the positive side, the power play continues to produce beyond expectations. The Capitals have converted at least one in nine straight games and overall have connected on 12 of 45 chances, for a 26.7 success rate, fourth best in the league.
The brightest individual performers thus far have been Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter, who share the team scoring lead with 14 points apiece. Gartner has eight goals, Carpenter seven, and each has two game winners.
Gartner had two goals Saturday, including the winner, to mark his 400th NHL game in memorable fashion. Gartner and Carpenter assisted on Paul Gardner's 200th NHL goal.