When the Washington Capitals play the Boston Bruins at sold-out Capital Centre this afternoon, their most important task will be to concentrate on the Bruins, while shoving the Philadelphia Flyers and the Stanley Cup playoffs out of mind. It will not be easy.
Much of the Capitals' success this season has been built on playing one game at a time. It can be a cliche; with the Capitals for 10 glorious weeks, it was a fact of life.
Somewhere in the relentless public-address campaign to peddle season tickets as a vehicle for securing playoff seats, the Capitals lost that single-minded approach. Instead of playing Edmonton and Buffalo and Philadelphia for regular-season points, they were engaging in playoff previews.
With the Flyers' sweep of Thursday and Friday, leaving the teams tied for the Patrick Division lead and Philadelphia with a game in hand, suddenly that preview is not so fetching.
"Tomorrow we have to get back to playing one game at a time," said center Doug Jarvis. "Now it's like the start of the year; we're thinking down the road for some reason. But there are a lot of games to be played before you get down the road.
"We have to put those two games with Philadelphia behind us. We're tied for first place and we're playing Boston for two points tomorrow. There are a lot of points to be had yet."
The Capitals struggled at the start of the season, posting a 6-8-5 record while they dreamed of a first-place finish and increased offensive production. Then team captain Rod Langway suggested that they focus on playing well defensively against each upcoming opponent and the figures over the next 10 weeks were the NHL's best, 28-5-3.
The Capitals had an 11-point lead the last time the Flyers came to town, on Feb. 9. That was the night Brian Propp's goal with two seconds left beat the Capitals and, beginning with that contest, Washington has slogged its way through the playoff hype with a 5-6-1 mark.
There was no question that the Flyers outplayed the Capitals in both games and deserved the victories. Whether the Capitals can reverse their 5-1-1 regular-season deficit in a possible playoff matchup against the Flyers is best left, everyone agrees, for "down the road."
"It's regrouping time," said Coach Bryan Murray. "It's over and we're tied with them. If we meet in the playoffs, we'll deal with it at that time.
"But we have 13 games left and we have to concentrate on each one of them. I'm concerned about getting back on the track tomorrow. Maybe we'll be a bit tentative at first, but I hope it won't take us long to regain our normal moves.
"Boston is playing really good now and we'll have to play well to win. It's important for us to play well. In six periods against the Flyers, I don't think we had more than one good one."
The Capitals have not lost three games in a row all season. Should it happen for the first time today, and should the Flyers defeat Pittsburgh as expected, it could be a crippling blow. The worst part would be the fact that the Capitals, idle until Thursday, would spend the off days on a low rather than a high.
"Every guy on this team has to look at himself and ask what he's done for the team lately," Langway said. "We have to get back to the form we had earlier. We're tied, and they have a game in hand, but we've got a lot of games left to change that."
Asked about the problems of getting up mentally for Boston after the flop against Philadelphia, Mike Gartner said, "Obviously, it will be a little difficult. We lost two very important games. We have to realize we're tied for first, even though Philadelphia has a game in hand, and we want to be first at the end.
"Everybody is a little tired, but we have today to rest. Boston is one more game along the way and we have to be ready for them."
Murray emphasized skating drills in yesterday's practice at Fort Dupont. Then he watched the Bruins' game against Pittsburgh on television, with any tactical instructions to the team delayed until today. He said the workout was designed to offset the letdowns that seem to affect the team after games to which extra importance is attached.
"I wanted them to skate a lot in practice and get the juices going," Murray said. "We need to go out tomorrow and get things rolling again."
All the Capitals skated yesterday except defenseman Scott Stevens, who was excused after he bruised his left leg Friday night. Stevens was on the ice for 28 minutes against the Flyers and was far and away Washington's best player.
Winger Bengt Gustafsson, unable to play Friday, had trouble holding his stick with his bruised left hand, but he said, "It's a little better. Hopefully, I can play tomorrow."
Winger Craig Laughlin was in some pain during the practice. He banged a shoulder against the boards after launching a shot, but said he would be able to play today.
If the Flyers did not teach the Capitals sufficient humility, the folks at Fort Dupont made them feel like a team of Rodney Dangerfields. The Capitals had to sit in the Fort Dupont bleachers 25 minutes past their scheduled practice time while the Capital Boys and Fairfax finished a junior game.
Among the spectators was General Manager David Poile, who said it was unlikely that he would enter the trading market before Tuesday's deadline.
"I'd like to make a big move, but it's just not realistic," Poile said.
The all-hands brawl Friday left one unresolved question. Does Flyer Glen Cochrane, who saw no ice time but received two game-misconduct penalties, get zero, one or two games' credit toward his pension? . . . The Capitals can sweep the season series from Boston with a victory today . . . Pat Riggin, 9-2 lifetime against the Bruins, will be in the net.