Gary Sampson and Darren Veitch return to action tonight, which puts the Washington Capitals as close to peak physical condition as possible for back-to-back Capital Centre visits by the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers. The only disabled Capital is goaltender Al Jensen, and there was good news for him, as well.
Jensen underwent an arthroscopic examination on his painful left knee yesterday and instead of the previously diagnosed ligament damage, he was found to have nothing more serious than an abnormally thick fibrous band running through the knee.
The grip of the pain-producing band was surgically eased and Jensen was told that he could begin conditioning next week, with a possible return to action in early March.
Washington Coach Bryan Murray was in Philadelphia last night to gain the greatest possible advantage from an unusual scheduling situation that had the Kings and Flyers battling each other to a 4-4 tie before coming here in turn tonight and Saturday.
"It's the ideal way to have it," Murray said. "Certainly, I prefer to play L.A. first and then Philly. The way it works out, Philly has a night off and a chance to see us, but that doesn't bother me. I'm sure we'll concentrate and play accordingly against them."
The Flyers, of course, hold second place in the Patrick Division, trailing Washington by nine points. While the Capitals face a five-game road trip after Saturday's contest, the Flyers will go home for six straight in the Spectrum.
Asked if the Capitals might be looking past the Kings to the Flyers, Murray said, "That's always a bit of a problem. Certainly, Philadelphia is a key game. But we respect L.A. They've got some names we can gear on and seeing them I'll be able to pinpoint some things.
"This is the first time I've seen L.A. since we played them (a 5-3 victory here Oct. 16). I'm sure they'll be a different team from last time, but so will we."
The return of Sampson and Veitch will make the Capitals a different team from the last 10 days. In four games, they looked sharp just once, in Sunday's 6-2 defeat of Winnipeg.
Sampson, a left wing most of the season, has been tabbed for duty at center, probably between Greg Adams and Bob Gould, while Glen Currie sits out. Sampson has been idle since he was checked by the Islanders' Patrick Flatley Dec. 27 and suffered ligament damage to the left knee.
"I'm ready and playing center is a good way to come back," Sampson said. "I played it in college and a couple of times this year and it gives me a little more freedom.
"It's been frustrating sitting out so long. I thought I was playing pretty well when I got hurt and now I'm wondering if I can come back and play the same way. The most important thing is to be confident and positive about tomorrow's game."
Veitch was playing the best hockey of his five-year pro career when he stepped on a puck during a game with the Islanders Jan. 27 and suffered separated rib cartilage.
"I hope I'm ready," Veitch said. "I feel good enough to play. It was still kind of tender until yesterday, when the pain seemed to go away."
Center Bob Carpenter reported major improvement in his left arm, which was slashed during the first period in Toronto Tuesday and reduced his effectiveness.
When Carpenter sought treatment, he was able to joke with the doctor. Informed that there was considerable swelling in the left arm, Carpenter said, "That's all muscle. I hurt the other arm."
Los Angeles is healthy, too. Only center Doug Smith, who banged up a knee Jan. 16, was left behind on this trip. The Kings had won four of five going into Philadelphia and Marcel Dionne was on a tear, with 18 goals and 33 assists in his last 27 games.
A big factor in the Kings' climb to respectability under Coach Pat Quinn has been the outstanding play of rookie defensemen Garry Galley and Craig Redmond.
Galley, who helped Bowling Green to the NCAA championship last year, has compiled 29 points and a plus-five rating. Redmond, a Canadian Olympian and a first-round draft choice, has 26 points.
Tonight's game affords critics another chance to evaluate the Larry Murphy-Brian Engblom trade, with Murphy having bragging rights so far, in that the Capitals have won all four meetings since that 1983 deal was completed.
Washington defenseman Mike McEwen, with four goals in the last four games and a plus-23 rating, has a chance to crow a bit, if he chooses, because he signed with the Capitals after being released by the Kings June 30.
"You want to show every team that gave up on you that they made a mistake," McEwen said. "I'd certainly like to play well against them. But there's no malice there. I wasn't in L.A. long enough to get a feel for the place. They wanted to go with youth and I didn't have a good year there.
"I didn't fit in with the plans of either Don Perry or Roger Neilson. Pat Quinn has things in order there now and (General Manager) Rogie Vachon has rebuilt things. I haven't seen them play, but from what I've heard, Redmond and Galley are all right.
"It's a tough city to play in with all the travel. And you're so far away from the hockey centers, you kind of feel left out."
Philadelphia had lost four of five before meeting the Kings and was struggling on defense. Brad McCrimmon, the Flyers' best backliner much of the season, was slashed by teammate Tim Kerr during a pregame skate Jan. 31 and suffered a cracked finger.
Kerr, without a goal in his last six games, became upset when McCrimmon swiped the puck in a one-on-one drill and whacked McCrimmon with his stick.
Another problem for the Flyers has been the falloff of what had been a strong checking line of Ron Sutter, Lindsay Carson and Rick Tocchet. There has been speculation that Ron Sutter's problems are related to the demotion of twin brother Rich, who was sent to Hersey last week.