The suspense at Capital Centre last night involved Al Jensen's bid for his first shutout in 15 months. He succeeded, his 17 saves helping the Washington Capitals defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-0.
His skate presented more problems than the Maple Leafs, who justifiably own the NHL's worst record. Coach Bryan Murray called time early in the third period so Jensen could sharpen it at the bench. Thereafter, the goalie kept a stone near the net for touch-ups during timeouts.
"My skate hit a post and I lost my edge," he said. "The ref allowed me to keep a stone by the net, which he didn't have to do.
"The team played very well tonight and they didn't give much. Tonight was a team shutout. I'm just trying to be confident and play the best I can."
The whole Washington team was trying to regain some confidence, after three straight losses, and the Maple Leafs proved the tonic. The Capitals outshot the visitors, 31-8, over the first two periods and only sharp netminding by Ken Wregget kept Toronto within four goals.
Washington closed within two points of first-place Philadelphia in the Patrick Division, but the Flyers have a game in hand and will get a crack Saturday at the Maple Leafs, who have lost five straight and last night tied the club's all-time total of defeats, 45, set last season. Toronto has 11 games left in which to worsen it.
Mike McEwen, Bengt Gustafsson, Bob Carpenter and Craig Laughlin scored for Washington, which tested Wregget 40 times. Carpenter had two assists for his sixth three-point game of the season.
"This was the right medicine for us," Murray said. "We struggled last week and everybody was pressing a little. They (the Maple Leafs) didn't do a lot tonight, but the effort was there for us. We had enough chances for seven or eight goals.
"This is the way we have to play -- keep the goals down, be disciplined and don't get caught in our end. We need to play solid, basic hockey."
The No. 1 star of the game was defenseman Dave Shand, who wasn't good enough to play for Toronto two years ago and wasn't seeing much action this season, either, until Murray decided Sunday that an injection of Shand's enthusiasm could give the club a needed lift.
"I feel sorry for guys on the Leafs who are good friends of mine," Shand said. "They have some quality players working hard every night and nothing is happening.
"They have too many young guys and they're lacking togetherness. I'm sorry for the players, but I'm not at all sorry for their management."
With Shand and Peter Andersson in action, and McEwen returning after a one-game layoff, Timo Blomqvist and Larry Murphy watched from the stands, Murphy missing his first game of the season.
"I'm just trying to rotate a couple of guys and give Peter and Dave Shand a chance to prove themselves," Murray said. "That gives a couple of other guys a chance to watch. It helped Mike McEwen to watch a game and it should help Larry Murphy, too."
The plight of the injury-riddled Maple Leafs was best illustrated following a first-period fight between Darren Veitch of the Capitals and Gary Yaremchuk, a winger playing only his second game of the season for Toronto.
At the penalty box, referee Denis Morel asked Toronto captain Rick Vaive the name of the Maple Leaf involved. Vaive said he did not know, explaining, "They come in and out of here so fast I don't know who they are."
Veitch rammed Yaremchuk for bumping Jensen in the corner when Jensen was playing the puck.
"My back was to the play and I was caught with the puck," Jensen said. "I wasn't sure where I was going to throw it and I saw him coming, so I covered up and he hit me. The next thing I knew I turned around and Darren had him on the ice."
There was another flareup late in the game involving Washington's Gary Sampson and Toronto's Bob McGill.
McEwen's 10th goal opened the scoring, coming out of the penalty box, taking Carpenter's pass and putting the puck between Wregget's legs. Wregget had banged his stick on the ice, vainly trying to let teammates know that McEwen was about to return.
The goal came on the Capitals' first shot, at 6:24. By that time, the Maple Leafs had launched three at Jensen; they managed only one more the rest of the first period, none in the first 10 minutes of the second.
Gustafsson and Laughlin scored on second period power plays, with Carpenter's 47th sandwiched between. Gustafsson had a rebound-pop at an empty net after the Maple Leafs' Gary Nylund knocked Laughlin against Wregget.
Carpenter beat Wregget with a short-side shot from the top of the left-wing circle for only his second goal in the last eight games.
Laughlin deflected a drive from the blueline by Scott Stevens for his 13th goal, first in 12 games.
Jensen's last shutout had been Dec. 18, 1983, against Los Angeles. The Capitals have four this year; Pat Riggin has two and Bob Mason one.
In other games, the Boston Bruins beat the New Jersey Devils, 7-4, in East Rutherford, N.Y., and the Winnipeg Jets beat the Canadiens, 4-1, in Montreal.
For the Bruins, who won their third in a row, Charlie Simmer had a goal and an assist and Ken Linseman had three assists.
Brian Hayward made 28 saves to help the Jets win their seventh of eight games.