The Washington Capitals are running out of chances to beat Scotty Bowman. Having failed in 44 attempts, the Capitals will challenge the Buffalo Sabres' coach twice this weekend, here Friday night and at Capital Centre Saturday night.
Bowman, whose statistics suggest he is the greatest coach in hockey history, indicated today that should his young Sabres have a successful season, he is prepared to shift his ice-chewing act to a seat in the stands.
"I'd like to finish off in better style," Bowman said. "I've worked hard on coaching this year, more so than last year, even if the results don't show it. If I could get off at the end of this year, I'd be satisfied.
"But I'd like to do better than the year before and it will be tougher to let go if we don't do well."
When Bowman does quit, it will be as the most successful coach in NHL history. He goes into the weekend needing two victories to match Dick Irvin's career total of 690. On a percentage basis, Bowman's .675 figure is well ahead of runner-up Toe Blake (.634).
"I didn't realize the situation until a few years ago and then I didn't think it was within reach," said Bowman, 51, of Irvin's record, established from 1930 through 1956. "But time flies. It means a lot right now, when my coaching is probably mostly behind me. I just hope I get it soon. It's tough to win a game right now."
Besides the bare statistics, Bowman can display a collection of five Stanley Cup rings, earned during eight seasons in Montreal. Before being blessed with the Canadiens' talent, he proved his ability in St. Louis, where he took the expansion Blues to three straight Stanley Cup finals.
Success has been slower to come in Buffalo, but as the Sabres' general manager, director of hockey operations and coach, he has built an outstanding young team by astute use of draft choices. Fourteen members of the team were first-round selections; eight were drafted in 1982 and 1983.
This has been a strange season for the Sabres. They are unbeaten at home, with seven victories and one tie. Yet they are only 1-6-1 on the road, leaving them third in the highly competitive Adams Division.
"It's not a big problem," Bowman said. "We've lost four road games by one goal. So far, we've played pretty good hockey on the road with no results, but that will change.
"If you're on the road and you're not in the game, then you have a lot of problems. A lot of our trouble has been confidence. We had it last year, when we played good, solid hockey on the road (23-16-1). But our team is not as confident as a year ago.
"We have a lot of young players who have to come a long way. There's a lot of pressure on our team, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that young players who have had any success, the second time around learn it's not as easy.
"I don't find them as happy with the task involved. We have a lot of inexperience down the middle and you have to have patience with young players."
Bowman ran out of patience with goaltender Tom Barrasso, the all-star goalie of a year ago. The story of Barrasso's demotion to Rochester for 10 days created headlines that Bowman believes were unwarranted.
"He was having a tough time and we weren't playing well," Bowman said. "I thought it would be a tonic to go play five games in a week, rather than stay here and not play at all."
"He plays the people who contribute every night," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said. "Being general manager helps with that kind of outlook. But he's put together a big, strong, talented hockey club with a great defense. Last year, I felt we should have beaten them in Buffalo and I'd like to think a couple of nights this year we could take it to them."
So far, however, the Capitals' record against Bowman reads 41 losses and three ties. Two ties came when Bowman was in Montreal, 4-4 in 1978 and 2-2 in 1979. The other was the 2-2 tie in Buffalo Jan. 25, of which Murray spoke wistfully.
During the early years, the Capitals managed to surprise most of the NHL's top clubs on occasion, but they never caught Bowman napping.
"He always has the other team well-scouted, with a lot of information on their system and how they've been playing," said the Capitals' Doug Jarvis, an important member of four straight Stanley Cup championship teams under Bowman. "He's big on strategy and big on the players being ready.
"I'd like to turn the tables on him. Back to back this weekend would be a good start."
Bowman, a longtime fan of the NHL's top defensive forward, welcomed the challenge with a smile.
"We recognize that the Washington team is a solid hockey club," Bowman said. "We don't see a lot of them, but it's a good matchup for both teams. Both of us have good, young players other teams would like to get their hands on -- and won't."