The Washington Capitals have lost control of their destiny. In fact, the way the Philadelphia Flyers are playing, the Capitals appear destined to finish second in the Patrick Division and open the Stanley Cup playoffs against the New York Islanders.
The Flyers hold a two-point lead and have 13 games remaining, to the Capitals' 12. The teams have no further head-to-head meetings and, beyond the obvious advantage of the game in hand, Philadelphia would appear to have the more favorable schedule. The Flyers also have momentum. Including the Thursday-Friday sweep of the Capitals that turned the situation upside down, they have won four straight games and 12 of 15. Over the same time span, Washington is 5-7-1.
The Capitals' 12 remaining games include seven at home, where they have lost three of the last four, and six on the road. Although they are 11-3-4 this season against the six opponents involved, the road games include visits to the Islanders and Montreal, both formidable on home ice.
The Flyers' 13 games are spread among eight opponents, against whom Philadelphia is 15-10-2 this season. However, four games are with the New York Rangers, a team Philadelphia has soundly defeated in all three previous meetings.
The Flyers have seven games to play on the road, but none of those opponents is on the plus side of the .500 mark. The toughest games, two against the Islanders and one against Montreal, are scheduled for the Spectrum, where the Flyers' 26-4-4 record stands as the best home figure in the NHL.
It would appear, therefore, that the Capitals' first-place hopes, so bright a week ago, have slipped into the long shot category. Although the Flyers' sweep put Washington in its current predicament, the root cause can be traced to Philadelphia's victory here in the last two seconds on Feb. 9.
The Capitals were flying high at that stage, having built an 11-point lead while losing only five of their previous 36 games. Following that stunning defeat on a goal by Brian Propp, the Capitals only once have been able to put two victories back to back.
Over the last 13 games, Washington has been outscored, 50-44, and only in Al Jensen's 4-1 comeback victory over New Jersey has an opponent been held to fewer than two goals. There were 12 shutouts or one-goal games during the 28-5-3 stretch that preceded the Feb. 9 game.
"We were going pretty good, and we were in a good race, but we just haven't been consistent since the All-Star break," said Coach Bryan Murray.
In truth, since the All-Star interruption, which followed the Feb. 9 loss, the Capitals have played three solid periods only twice, in the 6-2 victory at Vancouver and 3-3 tie at Edmonton that followed their three-day minivacation in San Diego.
Perhaps a more shattering loss even than those to the Flyers was the 4-0 defeat at the hands of Buffalo at Capital Centre March 2. It was both unexpected and convincing, and it might have created some doubts in the efficacy of Murray's system.
"That last-second loss to Philly came at a bad time, because if we'd beaten Philly we would have had five without a loss and then the All-Star break," team captain Rod Langway said. "But on the road trip we played .500 hockey and we played two great games in Vancouver and Edmonton.
"I think the one maybe discouraging game for us was against Buffalo, because we were never in the game. They played us to a T, sitting back and waiting for us to make a mistake. We made four mistakes and we never did get anything past (Tom) Barrasso."
In recent weeks, the easy breakouts that had become a Capitals characteristic have disappeared, with the team having considerable trouble moving out of its own zone. At the other end, the forechecking has lacked the relentless quality that had opponents shaking their heads.
Since the personnel is the same, there seem to be two reasons for the turnabout. First, it is impossible to maintain a high emotional level over an 80-game schedule, and the Capitals picked the wrong time to cool off.
Second, the opposition seems to be developing antidotes to Murray's admittedly basic system.
"Buffalo came out playing a different game and we had trouble adjusting," said defenseman Scott Stevens. "We have to change our style when that happens, but that night we panicked. We couldn't do anything against them. We have to learn to handle situations like that."
Murray gave the team a day off yesterday. When practice resumes today, he figures to add some options to the breakouts and forechecking patterns. As for the spirit, that might be somewhat tougher, considering the players' suddenly deflated dreams.
The deadline for trades and routine recalls from farm clubs is noon today, which leaves General Manager David Poile only a brief time to change things with a dramatic personnel move. He has indicated such a transaction is unlikely.
No doubt, as he watched Charlie Simmer wear his No. 23 Boston sweater Sunday, Poile was engaged in some second-guessing, wondering whether he should have tried harder to procure Simmer from Los Angeles last fall, when the Bruins prevailed with an offer of a No. 1 draft pick.
In 50 games with Boston, Simmer has 29 goals and 23 assists. The four left wings who played for Washington Sunday -- Gaetan Duchesne, Gary Sampson, Greg Adams and Lou Franceschetti -- have a total of 32 goals.
The Capitals' roster was trimmed to 22 yesterday when center Dean Evason was returned to Binghamton. Recalled Feb. 25 for a seven-game trial, Evason had one goal and two assists.
Washington was able to make the move because winger Bengt Gustafsson, who missed the last two games with a bruised left hand, will be ready to play when Toronto visits Capital Centre on Thursday. Binghamton had been reduced to nine forwards by recalls and injuries, prompting General Manager-Coach Larry Pleau to dress for Sunday's game in Rochester, although he did not play.