In the next six days, the Washington Capitals will play three important Patrick Division games, two against Philadelphia and one with the New York Islanders.
First, however, they must play one of those faceless but formidable Norris Division teams that visit Capital Centre occasionally to fill out the 40-game home schedule.
The St. Louis Blues, two points behind Norris-leading Chicago, will make their only Centre appearance of the season tonight at 7:30. The game comes 11 days after the teams tied, 3-3, in St. Louis.
Although of less general interest than the big games to come, this one poses a number of problems for the Capitals, even though they have lost only once in 14 games.
For one thing, the Blues are a good hockey team, with much the same defensive style as Washington, and like the Capitals they are in the thick of a divisional battle.
Whereas the Blues are in good physical shape following Wednesday's 4-1 home victory over Minnesota, the Capitals came home from Montreal yesterday weary and wobbly after a 2-2 tie with the Canadiens.
Because of a delay in the arrival of their chartered plane from Detroit, the Capitals did not leave Montreal until 1:30 a.m., more than two hours behind schedule. It was close to 4 before most of them reached their homes.
Accordingly, Coach Bryan Murray canceled yesterday's practice to let the players spend a few hours at home before the team Christmas party, which was held last night at Mount Vernon.
"Preparation for individual games is important and we need preparation for teams like the Blues, the Flyers and the Islanders," Murray said. "But when you get caught up on the road like this, you just can't get it in.
"With no practice today, we play the Blues tomorrow and the Flyers Sunday, then we're off for Christmas and we play the Flyers Wednesday and the Islanders Thursday. That's a lot of games without much preparation time."
The Patrick Division lead will be at stake in Philadelphia Sunday. Murray hopes the Capitals are not looking ahead to that confrontation when they take the ice tonight.
"I don't know that would be a problem; I hope not," Murray said. "One thing we've done well is play it game by game. The one in Philly won't be nearly as big if we lose to St. Louis."
On the Blues' last visit to Capital Centre, March 18, they dealt the Capitals one of only two defeats in 14 games that month. The other was to the Islanders, who eventually edged the Capitals by three points for first place.
"Jacques Demers has St. Louis working very hard," Murray said. "They have three lines playing well. In the (Bernie) Federko-(Brian) Sutter-(Joe) Mullen line, they've got guys who can score and consistently work hard. (Doug) Gilmour and (Jorgen) Pettersson and whatever winger they put with them make up a very dangerous line, too."
Federko, the team's scoring leader for six straight seasons, is on top again with 43 points. Mullen, with 15 goals, is four ahead of his 30-game pace of a year ago, when he finished with 41, the NHL high for a U.S.-born player.
Tonight, Mullen will get a look at the man who figures to supersede him in that category. Bob Carpenter has 26 goals for Washington.
Carpenter, slowed by the flu in Montreal and left limping by an overtime shot to the foot, has not missed a game since entering the NHL in 1981 and can be expected to play tonight.
"Both Carpenter and (Gary) Sampson were sick Thursday and if that was to spread, the combination of fatigue and sickness could be a problem," Murray said. "At this point, however, I hope we can use all our people."
Sitting this one out will be goaltender Pat Riggin, who suffered a bruised right arm when he was decked from behind by Chris Nilan in Montreal Thursday. Although Riggin finished the game, the arm was extremely sore yesterday.
In Riggin's absence, Bob Mason will go after his fifth straight victory. Mason has allowed only six goals in the four victories, reducing his goals-against average to an outstanding 2.24.