While the Washington Capitals savor the rarefied air of first place in the Patrick Division, the New York Islanders are content merely to breathe some life into a ravaged roster.
When Washington comes here Saturday (WDCA-TV-20, 5 p.m.) hoping to land a knockout punch in the opener of a weekend home-and-home series, the third-place Islanders expect to welcome back forwards Mike Bossy, who pulled a back muscle Jan. 16, and Anders Kallur, who separated a shoulder Dec. 22.
The return of the two nemeses of the Capitals would bring to eight the number of sick or injured players who have rejoined the Islanders this week. As a result of the wholesale recuperation, four players were returned to the Springfield, Mass., farm club today -- defensemen Ken Leiter and Vern Smith and forwards Mark Hamway and Ron Handy.
That move reduced the Islanders' roster to 27, still a hefty number. The current disabled list includes defensemen Ken Morrow, skating again after October knee surgery; Stefan Persson, broken leg, and Tomas Jonsson, shoulder separation, and forwards Pat LaFontaine, mononucleosis; Bob Bourne, severed hand tendon, and Roger Kortko, sprained ankle.
But another crisis could be only three days away. Goaltender Bill Smith attended a hearing in Montreal today relative to using his stick to fracture the cheekbone of Chicago's Curt Fraser Jan. 13. A decision will be rendered Monday by NHL Executive Vice President Brian O'Neill, and there is reason to believe Smith may be suspended.
"I feel innocent," said Smith following the hearing. "My stick did hit him, but if you watch the replay, I was fighting to get to the other side of the net to play the shot and Fraser was draped all over me."
Ironically, just before the Fraser incident, Smith discussed his aggressive style in a Hockey News interview:
"I'll do what I have to do. I've always been that way. Guys don't retaliate against me that much any more. They have this new law, suspending you if you get caught.
"I'm not about to do something and get suspended. The things I've done in the past I've done because they had to be done. Now that they're putting out suspensions, well, a lot of them are not called properly.
"You know I'm the guy who's going to get 10 or 20 games even though someone else might do something three times as bad as me. This is what scares me more than anything."
Those who remember Smith repeatedly slashing Washington's Bengt Gustafsson near the end of a one-sided game here last season no doubt will show little sympathy if Smith gets his "10 or 20."
There is no certainty that Smith, who has been struggling with a 4.19 goals-against average, will even get the call over rookie Kelly Hrudey this weekend. However, Smith's past success against Washington, especially in the playoffs last spring, might tempt Coach Al Arbour to use him in a bid to motivate a team that has won only one of its last five games and trails the Capitals by 11 points.
"He's capable of coming up big; we know that," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "And I'm sure the Islanders feel they can get a streak going. They beat the Flyers the last two times at home and they're not ready to concede yet.
"If we can beat them a couple of times this weekend, though, maybe we can put them out. It will be tough to do, but the way we're playing I think the guys really believe in themselves and now feel we have a heck of a shot at going all the way."
The Capitals are riding a five-game winning streak and have lost only four times in their last 29 games. They took a giant step toward unseating the Islanders as Patrick Division champions on their last visit here a month ago, when they came from two goals down to win, 5-4, on an overtime score by Doug Jarvis. It ended a string of six straight losses to New York.
"That was definitely a hurdle cleared," Murray said. "It was a big thing mentally. It would have been a real negative if we hadn't won, because we outplayed them by such a wide margin."
Smith made 35 saves that night to keep it close, as Washington outshot the Islanders, 40-16.
The major problem confronting the Capitals is the weakened physical condition of defenseman Rod Langway. Plagued by flu, Langway practiced only briefly today and his ice time will be limited Saturday.
Pat Riggin, with a career record of 3-6-1 against the Islanders, will guard the Capitals' nets Saturday.
Sunday's Capital Centre rematch at 1:30 is sold out, as is Washington's Feb. 9 home game against Philadelphia.