With injured wingers Bengt Gustafsson and Bryan Erickson returning to the lineup tonight, it was hardly surprising that the rest of the Washington Capitals were working extra hard yesterday. In fact, when Coach Bryan Murray called a halt to practice at Mount Vernon, not one player headed for the dressing room.
When the Capitals take the ice tonight against the Winnipeg Jets at Capital Centre, two members of their roster must watch from the stands, and nobody seemed eager to attract Murray's notice. It will not be easy for him to select two noncombatants on a team that has won six straight games. But he considers it important to get Gustafsson and Erickson, especially Gustafsson, back to work.
Gustafsson, a 32-goal scorer last season, has been troubled by recurrent hamstring problems and has not played since Oct. 25. Erickson strained a knee in the first period against Pittsburgh Sunday and sat out Tuesday's 4-1 triumph over New Jersey.
Gustafsson will play left wing tonight on a line with Dave Christian and Craig Laughlin. Erickson most likely will be at right wing with Greg Adams and Dean Evason.
"I'd like to get back to having Christian and Gus together," Murray said. "They worked together very well last season, and even though Davy is starting to play better, I feel that line will be upgraded by Gus' presence. They (Christian, Laughlin and Gary Sampson) were outplayed a bit Tuesday just because of puck control, which is Gus' leading suit.
"I'll have to be careful with Gus and see how he stands up physically, but he seems in pretty good shape. Since we're playing pretty regularly with four lines, he'll have time to recover after each shift. He'll just have to watch the length of the shifts, to be sure he doesn't tire too quickly."
Although Gustafsson has missed 62 games with a wide variety of injuries during his six seasons in Washington, this has been his longest stretch of idleness and he is anxious to return to action. However, he said, the last two weeks had been easier to bear, because of the team's success.
"When the team is losing, you want to help, but you can't," Gustafsson said. "You see things all the time from the stands, but there's nothing you can do about it.
"When you're winning, it's easier around the team. You have to be happy for the guys and you enjoy the wins just like anybody else. But of course you always want to play.
"The first thing I have to do is try to get back in shape. The leg is sound, but it's a matter of conditioning. You have to play games for that. Our practices have been a lot easier lately, so you can't get the conditioning you need there.
"It will be fun to be back and playing. David and I have had good success before and we've had a lot of fun together."
Pat Riggin will be in goal for Washington tonight, which precludes a matchup of the 1984 U.S. Olympic goalies. Bob Mason, so sharp in the 9-1 victory over Pittsburgh, probably will face Detroit here Sunday, instead. At least Mason will have an opportunity to talk with Winnipeg's Marc Behrend, whom Mason has not seen since they guarded the U.S. goal in Sarajevo.
If the Capitals win, they will tie the New York Islanders for second place in the Patrick Division, a notable achievement since they trailed the Islanders by 10 points less than two weeks ago.
Although the Jets never have won in eight visits to Capital Centre and have beaten Washington only twice in 15 meetings, this game could prove most difficult for the home club.
Winnipeg has posted an excellent 6-3-2 road record this season, with a victory in Philadelphia and a shutout by Behrend in Hartford.
"I think we're less uptight on the road," said Coach Barry Long. "At home, the players tend to listen to the boos rather than the cheers."
One Jet who has been earning cheers for his play is defenseman Robert Picard, the onetime Capital now in his eighth NHL season. Picard claims to be playing better than ever, a statement supported by his plus-14 rating, best figure on either team.
Picard, playing left defense alongside Randy Carlyle, has been blocking shots, pinching on offense and delivering some solid checks, including a memorable hit on Doug Gilmour during Tuesday's 2-2 tie in St. Louis.
Carlyle has three goals and 14 assists. Dale Hawerchuk, the Jets' captain at age 21, is off to his best start with 15 goals and 22 assists.