The Washington Capitals turned things around last night. In their 435th home game at Capital Centre, they changed ends, benches and penalty boxes. They also won for only the second time in two weeks, beating the New Jersey Devils, 4-1.
The new ice arrangement will not continue, largely because of the protests of season ticket holders who quickly became disoriented and angry. The Capitals hope they can maintain the winning direction, however, as they still trail Philadelphia by six points with nine games left.
Both coaches agreed that the outcome of this game hinged on a first-period incident in which New Jersey goalie Ron Low, the Capitals' first netminder in 1974, slashed and punched Bob Carpenter, who later scored his 49th goal. Low was assessed two penalties that Washington turned into a 2-0 lead.
"That incident gave us a little spark and it gave us a power play," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "Our power play is now working well and we jumped on them. It gave us the momentum to go on and win."
"The penalties were the key to the hockey game," said the Devils' coach, Doug Carpenter. "It gave them a spark by scoring two goals. It was something they needed, because they'd been on a downer. It lifted them up and we had to play catch-up hockey, which as far as I'm concerned is losing hockey."
If the coaches were in agreement about the results of the fracas, there were two sides to what incited it. Indisputably, Low came out and threw a body block at Bob Carpenter, who was on a breakaway closely pursued by the Devils' Joe Cirella. The puck caromed off Low into the slot, but Carpenter jabbed his stick into Low, who responded by whacking Carpenter with his goalie stick. When Carpenter turned turtle, Low punched him twice on the back of the head.
"I thought the puck was underneath him and I tried to poke it in," Carpenter said. "He hit me in the head with his stick and I saw (referee Kerry) Fraser's hand go up. I knew if I got up, he'd be after me and the penalties would even up. They always do.
"So I covered up, and he hit me, and he got another two minutes. It was an awful stupid play. It cost them the game."
"I thought he speared me, so I took exception," Low said. "If he thought the puck was legitimately under me, then I'm legitimately sorry I took exception.
"But there's no way the puck was lying there and his stick caught me on the left shoulder, near the neck. Last year, the last time we played at Capital Centre, I was behind the net with the puck and he drilled my catching hand."
After Carpenter covered up, Washington's Mike Gartner went after Low, who was pushed out of harm's way by Fraser. Cirella then wrestled with Gartner.
Besides four minutes to Low, Fraser assessed minors to Cirella and Gartner. If the teams had been at full strength, those minors would have been treated like coincidental majors and not served. However, since each team was a man short when the incident occurred, they had to be served, over Murray's strenuous objections.
After 31 seconds, Scott Stevens left the box, to give the Capitals a four-on-three advantage. During that stretch, a shot by Larry Murphy slipped through Low's pads and dropped in the crease, with Bengt Gustafsson banging it in. The assist was Murphy's 300th NHL point.
Only Low's second minor remained to be completed when Gartner retrieved his own rebound after Low had made a sensational save. It was Gartner's 44th goal.
The Capitals put the game out of reach on second-period goals by Murphy, who converted Gaetan Duchesne's perfect pass, and Carpenter, who rebounded a shot by Doug Jarvis.
Washington General Manager David Poile said the trigger for the wholesale change in the game setup was the NHL's threat of $5,000 fines for any repeats of the wholesale brawl at the end of the second period against Philadelphia March 8. By changing benches, the teams no longer had to cross paths to reach their dressing rooms.
"I'm 99 percent sure we'll go back the way it was," Poile said. "The obvious reason is that people bought season tickets to sit in the direction our team goes for two periods and we don't want to upset them.
"But maybe it will become a permanent change next year, when we have the opportunity to relocate those fans. There is a definite problem with teams leaving the ice and the threat of fines brought it to a head, at least to give it a chance. You'll notice, there were no problems at the end of the game tonight."
Poile assured a questioner that there was no intent to make Low think he was back with the first-year Capitals, when he routinely faced 40 shots a game. Last night he was tested only 34 times, with the Devils taking 21 shots at Al Jensen, who increased his career record against New Jersey to 10-0-1.
Jensen lost his shutout bid at 6:14 of the third period, when Paul Gagne deflected Uli Hiemer's drive from the right point. The goal, which occurred two seconds after the expiration of a penalty to Washington's Bob Gould, ended Jensen's scoreless streak at 115 minutes 31 seconds.
The game was watched by 10,479, smallest Centre crowd since the Devils came in Dec. 4. Coincidentally, the downturn in the Capitals' fortunes terminated the run on playoff seats by season ticket holders, so there will be a limited public sale.
About 2,500 tickets to each playoff game, none in the top price bracket, will go on sale during the Capitals' game with Hartford March 27.