The significance of the Washington Capitals' 2-2 tie with the New Jersey Devils Saturday was obscured by the figures on the scoreboard. Earning only one point against one of the NHL's poorest teams certainly was no cause for celebration.
What the game marked, however, was a return to a defensive commitment.
Over the first 13 games, while going 5-5-3, the Capitals averaged 3.85 goals per game, the exact figure of last year's 48-27-5 season.
The next column readily explains the Capitals' mediocre start. Where the club led the NHL last season by allowing only 2.83 goals per game, it has been giving up goals at a 3.77 rate this time.
General Manager David Poile took the first step toward a revamping of style Thursday when he shipped offensive-minded Jim McGeough to Binghamton and called up Lou Franceschetti. Although Franceschetti did his job against Edmonton, even scoring a goal while blanking his opposition, the move had little effect as the Oilers won, 8-5.
Coach Bryan Murray took a further step Saturday. He juggled his lines, solely with the aim of increasing defensive responsibility.
The key move was the shift of Gary Sampson, a most responsible winger, to the No. 1 line with Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner. Carpenter shifted from left wing to center and center Dave Christian was reassigned, between Bryan Erickson and Alan Haworth.
The result was gratifying, as New Jersey got only 24 shots and did not score an equal-strength goal.
"I felt that, against Edmonton, we gave up too many shots to that one line (Wayne Gretzky-Jari Kurri-Mike Krushelnyski)," Murray said. "Even though our No. 1 line got 15 shots, it gave up 19, and we're not going to win any shootouts.
"At the meeting before the game in New Jersey, we talked about the way we've played, the number of times we've gambled, and how often our forwards have left our defensemen alone. Maybe we've heard too many people tell us we should score more goals. What we really need to do is go back to what was winning games for us -- and the goals should come anyway.
"Last night our wingers were covering for the defensemen. If Scott (Stevens) came over to hit somebody, somebody was filling in the spot he left. That's the kind of thing that was second nature last year, but we haven't been doing it.
"There weren't as many wide-open chances in the game as we've seen lately. Everybody checked more responsibly than our club has been doing. I know they aren't Edmonton, but no team should have the two on ones and three on twos Edmonton got against us."
While all but a handful of the players enjoyed a day off, Poile and Murray discussed the future of at least a couple of them. Decisions must be made soon concerning Paul Gardner, whose designated five-game trial ended with two goals and two assists, and Franceschetti, who has looked good in limited duty over two games. Gaetan Duchesne, out since Oct. 11 with a broken hand, is due to return later this week, although not in time for Tuesday's Capital Centre contest against Minnesota.
One item of continuing concern is the Capitals' accumulation of seemingly silly penalties. Both New Jersey goals were scored on power plays, one with Washington two men short, and the Capitals now have yielded 18 extra-man goals in 59 opportunities.
Should that pace continue, they would give up 111 goals in 362 chances, light years away from last year's league-leading figures of 39 goals in 293 disadvantages.
"It's really bothersome," Murray said. "It's not like last year, when we had far more advantages than the teams we played. Maybe we're not as responsible as we had been, in regard to our positioning. We seem to be reaching and pulling from behind."