The Washington Capitals returned yesterday from two weeks in the West, apparently refreshed and ready for the stretch drive that will decide first place in the NHL's Patrick Division.
The Capitals brought back a four-point lead over Philadelphia, though it dwindled to two when the Flyers beat Calgary last night.
Saturday's 3-3 tie in Edmonton gave the Capitals a 2-2-1 split of a five-game tour of the Smythe Division. It was a shade short of Coach Bryan Murray's goal of six points, but considering the 5-3 dis-aster in Winnipeg that started things, the outcome was acceptable.
"I wanted six points and we got five, so the boys will have to buy my dinner instead of me buying them dinner," Murray said. "But we came out of it at .500, we got a rest and the results convinced me that we can play with the good teams in this division, like Calgary and Edmonton.
"You have to remember that three or four guys who played in Edmonton probably won't be regulars down the stretch. That shows we have more depth than ever before. I wasn't very happy with the second and third periods in Winnipeg, but otherwise we played well -- and we were out there a long time."
Resuming play Tuesday at Capital Centre against Vancouver, the Capitals have 12 home games remaining, only seven away. The longest trip is no farther than Montreal.
Meanwhile, the Flyers, who commence a five-game road trip Tuesday in Hartford, must play 13 games away from home and eight at the Spectrum.
The key contests, of course, should be those between the contenders at Philadelphia March 7 and Capital Centre March 8.
Feelings were mixed following the tie in Edmonton. Limiting the Oilers to 21 shots and earning a point in Northlands Coliseum were pluses, but not holding a 3-1 lead was disappointing.
"They had to tie us, and unfortunately they did," said defenseman Scott Stevens, who set up two Washington goals. "We played hard together and we showed we could play with them. We had a lot of chances to win it.
"They're a real good team. They're good at making a two-on-two into a three-on-two, their other guys get up on the play so quick. They turn it over really quick and it's hard for our forwards to cover them."
The game was billed as Washington's defense against Edmonton's offense and the paucity of chances by the high-scoring Oilers, who were credited with only two shots in the first period, indicated that the Capitals did the job defensively.
"Our defense was good, giving them so few chances," Murray said. "It proves to us that maybe we're deserving of where we are pointwise. It was a good game between two good hockey teams, although I'd have to point out that our offense isn't as bad as some people say, and neither is their defense."
Mike Gartner, who scored his 39th goal and assisted on Bob Carpenter's 45th, said: "We can't change our style and they can't change their style and last night we came out even, so I don't know if one system is better than the other. Edmonton is so offensively explosive that they are a tough challenge. You have to be more aware of them than any other team.
"We all felt we could have won. It's not like us to blow a 3-1 lead. We used to be satisfied with ties; no more. But the way we started the trip, I'm happy the way it finished. It's no disgrace to get a tie in another team's building, especially Edmonton."
Although there was a suggestion that the same teams might meet in the Stanley Cup final, Murray declined to be that optimistic.
"Realistically, we're looking at finishing first in our division and doing well in our divisional playoffs," the coach said. "We've never won our division and that's a hurdle for us to overcome."
Washington played without Alan Haworth (groin pull), Bengt Gustafsson (hamstring pull) and Gary Sampson (strained knee). All three could be back in action by Tuesday. However, the uncertainty may postpone several personnel changes that had been indicated for today.