The Washington Capitals made a lot of hits last night. If their overall play was not a hit with the Capital Centre crowd of 13,761, at least they picked up the two points needed to maintain their Patrick Division lead of the same amount over the Philadelphia Flyers, who beat Hartford, 3-2.
Goals by Bengt Gustafsson, Scott Stevens and Bob Gould were enough to dispatch the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2, as Pat Riggin blocked 20 shots and set a Capitals goaltenders' record of 26 victories in one season.
The Canucks, although hopelessly out of playoff contention, made things tough in the third period. Patrik Sundstrom's goal with 5:49 left completed the scoring, but Sundstrom was wide later from close range and Tony Tanti fanned on a rebound before Washington defender Darren Veitch covered the puck.
"We made some good contacts out there and they got hit pretty good, but they hung in," Washington Coach Bryan Murray said. "Coming home off the road trip, we didn't play so much as a team and they were able to move it out pretty easy. But we got the two points and I think we'll settle down now."
The Capitals registered more solid checks than in any game of recent memory, with Stevens, Veitch, Bob Carpenter and Gaetan Duchesne crunching Canucks to the ice in highlight-film fashion.
If the fans appreciated the hard knocks, they nevertheless booed the players returning from a two-week western swing. The loudest hoots came at the 10-minute mark of the first period and, for folks paying $15.50, they probably were justified. At that midpoint of the first period, Gustafsson had attempted the only shot of the game.
By period's end, the Capitals had a 10-2 margin on the shot clock and a 1-0 lead. Gustafsson had circled from behind the Vancouver net to beat goalie Richard Brodeur with four seconds left in the period.
The goal came a short time after Dave Christian had banged a puck behind Brodeur, only to have it ruled no score by referee Bob Myers because Christian's stick was above his shoulder.
Petri Skriko tied the score with a drive past Riggin's glove on the Canucks' third shot of the game, at 1:51 of the second period. But Stevens' power play deflection of a shot by Mike McEwen broke the tie and Gould produced the eventual winner on a sensational move.
Gould, without a goal since Jan. 19, maintained his balance although seemingly in a squat as he skated around defender Doug Halward. Then he pulled the puck away from the challenging Brodeur and hit the empty net.
"Greg (Adams) made a good pass, a little flip pass that gave it to me in a position where I didn't have to break stride," Gould said. "I got around the defenseman and then I saw the goalie's stick and I put it back inside to go around him.
"Usually, in that situation, I'd have been cut down by the defenseman, but this time I got around him clean. Maybe my luck is changing. We got the 20-game (statistical) segments today and when I took a peek, I realized consistency hasn't been my strong point."
The goal was the 11th for Gould, who topped 20 the last two seasons. Stevens was reaching 15 for the first time in his career, while Gustafsson was getting No. 6 after a high of 32 a year ago.
There are, of course, many reasons why Gustafsson has been off his feed, the most critical being his hamstrings. He was a surprise starter last night after missing six games with a pull on the left side; the right had kept him idle for six weeks earlier.
As it was, Gustafsson departed during the third period, but he said it was merely a preventive measure.
"My legs were tightening up and I felt it," Gustafsson said. "I didn't want to gamble and pull it again.
"Bryan asked me this morning to get involved, even if I just killed penalties and played the power play. Of course, as it turned out, I did a lot more.
"I know I have to get back to it, because we've got big games coming up, like those two with Philly next week. I can't rest now and then jump in. I have to get in there slowly and work up to it."
"We need Gus in there," Murray said. "He's creative and he holds the puck and makes the play, where so many guys just dump it in. He gives other guys some shooting chances."
The Capitals had enough shots to win more comfortably, firing 30 at Brodeur, who was starting his 27th straight game. Mike Gartner twice failed to convert breakaways, shooting high on one and into Brodeur's pads on another.
"I guess it was a bit tough to get up for it, with them not doing that well," Stevens said. "We had a lot of chances and we should have had more goals. We just made it a closer game than it should have been. I'm glad I was able to get my stick on one. I got 13 goals last year and I figured that would be my high. I never expected to reach 15."