When the Washington Capitals summoned defenseman Mike McEwen from Binghamton on Nov. 26, they were stumbling along with a 7-8-5 record. Since that time, they have posted the best mark in the National Hockey League, 25-5-3, and have opened up an eight-point lead in the Patrick Division.
McEwen is not the sole reason for the surge, of course, but he has played a prominent part, just as his four-point performance last night contributed heavily to a 6-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets.
It was only the third four-point night of the season by a Capital, with forwards Bob Carpenter and Craig Laughlin managing it earlier. None of the points was cheap; McEwen recorded two unassisted goals and set up scores by Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens.
Gartner matched McEwen in the goal department, for a season total of 34. Stevens' goal was his 14th, a career high.
But it was No. 12 by Gaetan Duchesne that enabled the Capitals and the majority of the 12,528 fans at Capital Centre to breathe easier.
Slightly more than six minutes remained in regulation, and Washington was clinging precariously to a 3-2 lead, with goalie Pat Riggin forced to make a save a minute in the period against the pressing Jets.
Duchesne got the puck behind the Winnipeg net and tried to pass it out to Dave Christian. The puck, however, slid all the way to the point, where Stevens unloaded a hard slap shot. As goalie Brian Hayward made the save, the puck trickled behind him and Duchesne was there to poke it in.
"I tried to put it out front, but not to Scotty; he was too far away," Duchesne said. "After I passed it, I went for the net. The goalie made the stop, and the puck was behind him. I just had to shove it across.
"The game was 3-2, and with a goal they would have tied it. But 4-2 made it tough for them, and we started to play better after that."
Within 78 seconds, the Capitals scored two more goals.
Mike Gartner, battling two Jets to maintain position in the slot, converted a feed by Bengt Gustafsson, who was promoted to the No. 1 line for inspirational purposes.
Then McEwen, as he had earlier, picked off a Winnipeg clearing pass inside the Jets' blueline and fired a shot that caromed off the post at the left of Hayward and wound up in the net.
"Normally, they both don't go off the post into the net, but tonight they did," McEwen said. "Things have been going real good for me, and I hope it continues.
"I don't get many four-point games, and I'm not going to think about it too much. One game doesn't make a season.
"On this team, it seems like every game we have a different hero. That's why we're in first place."
The Capitals had struggled through the week, losing at Detroit and tying Toronto here. So, when the Jets opened the scoring on Dale Hawerchuk's power-play deflection of a Randy Carlyle drive, the fans started fidgeting.
A bit more than two minutes later, with each team a man short, McEwen stole a Doug Smail pass and fired away, with the clanging of metal preceding the flashing light.
"I didn't get a lot of wood on it and I was kind of surprised he didn't make the save," McEwen said.
Gartner beat a screened Hayward to convert Washington's first power play at 10:55 and send the Capitals ahead to stay. He hit from the right point after taking McEwen's pass.
"I was peeking over at Mike, and as soon as I got the puck, I knew he was open and let him have it," McEwen said.
The Capitals had a number of chances to extend their lead before Stevens netted a rebound of a shot by McEwen at 13:35 of the second period for a 3-1 advantage.
But before the period ended, Smail beat Riggin with a high backhander, and things were tense until the three-goal spurt put it away.
Riggin stopped Tim Watters' blast from the slot six minutes into the third period and blocked Thomas Steen's point-blank drive off a Smail setup five minutes later.
"They played well, and they kept the pressure on us," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray.
"I thought Pat was a little shaky handling the puck early in the game, but he was positioned so good that he made some tough shots look easy.
"Maybe we looked past Detroit and Toronto a little earlier in the week, but tonight we had a good team against us, and we responded."
There was a fuss at the conclusion, with all the players on both teams milling around the ice. However, there was more talk than action, and the officials and coaches finally persuaded them to leave with no punches thrown.
"Everyone left in a bunch or I don't think it would have happened," Stevens said. "There was a lot of talk, but I don't think anybody wanted to fight. We were all too tired after a tough game like that."