Aslong as we're telling the truth here, I ought to confess that I'm not as up to date on some of the newer aspects of hockey as I might be. For example, I know they do it on ice, but do they use one cube or two? I don't know which NHL teams belong to which conference, Wales or Campbell, or to which divisions, the Patrick, Adams, Norris or Smythe. I haven't a clue who -- or what -- said conferences and divisions are named for, and I hope the other sports don't follow the NHL's lead, because I wouldn't want my kid to tell me that all her life she wanted to go to college in the Big DiMaggio division of the Mungo conference.
But one thing I do know about hockey is that, as with so many sports, after a team wins a division, it hangs up a banner to commemorate the accomplishment. Win a division, hang a banner; win a conference, hang a banner; win the Stanley Cup, hang a banner. I'm not sure which has more square yards of material draped over its rafters, the Nassau Coliseum or Shelley Winters' closet.
The Washington Capitals have played 10 full seasons in the NHL and other than Yvon Labre's jersey have yet to hang anything from the rafters -- except maybe the reputations of their seven previous coaches.
Tonight at the Spectrum, and Friday night at Capital Centre, the Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers will play the I-95 miniseries that could decide the winner of their division, and whether or not this is the banner season that the Capitals have been waiting for. The teams have been running 1-2 for most of the season. The last time they played, the Capitals were 11 points up with a chance to make it 13 here at home, but Brian Propp's goal with just two seconds left in the game gave Philly a 5-4 victory, cutting the Capitals' margin to nine. Since then, the Flyers have won nine of 12 games, and the Capitals five of 11.
"There's no doubt that if we are legitimate in contending for our division, it's a big match-up," says the Capitals' coach, Bryan Murray.
"Not do or die," Rod Langway says, on the one hand.
"But not just another two games on an 80-game schedule," Mike Gartner says, on the other.
The playoffs are the Real Thing, Murray says, "this is a preamble."
The Capitals are four points ahead of the Flyers now. Although both Langway and Gartner consider a split the safe and prudent bet, let's just play with the options of a sweep. "A sweep this late in the season would have a psychological impact to both teams, no question about it," says Gartner.
A Philly sweep would leave the teams tied with the Flyers having a game in hand. While Langway looks down the road at the remainder of both teams' schedules and believes that the Flyers "have a tougher schedule than we do," Murray stares at the immediacy of a sweep and worries that "we'd have to take a hard look at our team, and it may be too late to do anything about it."
A Capitals sweep would give them an eight-point lead with 13 games left. There's no disagreement on what that means. Gartner, understandably cautious after five full seasons here, allows "it would give us a comfortable cushion." Langway has no such hesitancy: "We sweep, and we've got them -- they're gone. Murray makes it unanimous: "If we lose the race after that, then obviously, we've thrown it away. Two in a row should nail it down."
Welcome to Banner Time.
Which would be nice. But what would it mean? After 21 NHL teams have played 80 regular season games, 16 of those teams move on to the playoffs. Not to qualify for the playoffs -- as the Capitals managed for eight straight seasons -- you basically have to be mouse food. The regular season result is devalued, once by the ease with which so many bad teams get into the playoffs, then once again by the universally held belief that the playoffs are the Real Thing.
So, what's first got to with it? A little bit of money, and a home-ice advantage that is statistically lower by far in the playoffs than in the regular season. Who needs home-ice, when . . . (Thanks, Tina. Don't call us; we'll call you.)
Anyway, the question is: since the Capitals are now one of the elite teams in the league, does a divisional banner really mean anything?
It depends, as they say, on where you're coming from.
To Murray, who, as a coach, takes the broader managerial and organizational view than might his players, winning the division would not only "give the team a slap on the back," (hockey coaches are tough guys; most teams I play on would settle for a pat on the back) but would also "benefit the franchise by creating more interest among fans and the media."
To Langway, who played on a Stanley Cup champion in Montreal and has stood at attention as the banners have been raised, "The way it's set up now, where you don't even get a bye, you get nothing out of winning your division. To me, if we finish first, but then don't win the division again in the playoffs -- say we get knocked out in the first round -- the banner wouldn't mean a damned thing, and we'd have just kissed the whole season off."
To Gartner, who came to Washington after the deadly teams, but during some lousy ones, winning a division would provide some psychic income. "It might not mean as much to Philadelphia or the Islanders; they've been there so many times before. But we'd like a banner hanging from the roof; it's a little prestige we haven't had. We've had recognition around the league, but we've never actually finished in first place. If we don't do it, we won't be sunk by any means, but I think it's an important steppingstone for the team and the organization."
For the first time in their career, the Capitals are expected to win their division.
Did Gartner ever think that day would come.