For most National Hockey League teams, the 80-game regular season is excruciatingly long and drawn out. For the Hartford Whalers, the conclusion on April 7 will come too soon.
The Whalers extended their club-record winning streak to six games last night by embarrassing the Washington Capitals, 3-1, before 14,355 at Capital Centre.
Goaltender Mike Liut, in his ninth game for Hartford since he was acquired from St. Louis Feb. 22, turned aside 32 shots, but few were especially difficult as the Whalers played almost a mistake-free game in front of him.
Kevin Dineen, Sylvain Turgeon and Ron Francis produced the Hartford goals, all in somewhat fluky fashion against Al Jensen, to give the Whalers only their second victory in 10 visits to Capital Centre.
Bengt Gustafsson scored Washington's lone goal at 6:10 of the third period, trimming Hartford's lead to 2-1. But Francis converted a breakaway less than two minutes later and the Capitals never threatened thereafter.
Coach Bryan Murray did not even bother to lift Jensen for an extra skater in the final minute, citing the Capitals' tight battle with Buffalo for the NHL's best defensive record as a factor but adding, "The way we were going we weren't going to get any shots, anyway."
The crowd, bigger than normal for a midweek game because playoff tickets went on sale after the first period, showed little appreciation of the Whalers' improved status. Instead, they booed the home club, with particular dislike for the0-for-4 power-play unit that frequently had difficulty crossing the Hartford blueline.
"We've been going so good on the power play and we'd moved among the top teams (No. 5), but tonight there was an obvious lack of hustle," Murray said. "We were terrible in the neutral zone.
"There was a total lack of intensity on our part for two periods and several guys took the night off. A couple of them were key guys on the power play."
The Whalers, already eliminated from postseason competition, were playing for pride and ex-Capital Torrie Robertson said, "The Whale can play. We all know that. It was just a case of getting things going and now everybody wants to win, whether we can make the playoffs or not."
The Capitals, still trying to build some momentum going into the playoffs, visit New Jersey tonight (WDCA-TV 20 at 7:30) and Murray promised a number of lineup changes.
"We'll give Gary Sampson and Mikko Leinonen a chance tomorrow and we'll alternate a couple of defensemen," Murray said. "Then we'll lock in for the playoffs. I left things alone tonight, because the guys were starting to appear comfortable with each other. But now I'm not so sure."
Dineen, a Canadian Olympian, opened the scoring with a shot from the left-wing circle that struck defenseman Timo Blomqvist's stick and was redirected past Jensen on the short side.
It became 2-0 early in the second period when Jensen blocked Ray Neufeld's shot with his chest and Turgeon was able to get his skate on the rebound.
Turgeon kicked the puck from right to left across the front of the net, then controlled it and got a favorable carom off the left post.
Gustafsson's sixth goal in seven games gave the Capitals brief hope of a comeback. Craig Laughlin crossed the Hartford blueline and yielded possession to Scot Kleinendorst, who lost the puck in his skates. Gustafsson raced in and in one motion drove the puck past Liut.
A sharp pass by Turgeon freed Francis on a breakaway and his shot dropped between Jensen's pads. As the goalie turned to cover the puck, he kicked it in with his left skate.
"We get it back to a 2-1 hockey game after not playing well, then we give their best line a two-on-one and they score," Murray said. "It was just a poor effort."
Liut stood tallest in the second period, when he turned aside 14 shots. Dave Christian had two excellent chances, following setups by Gustafsson and Mike Gartner, but wound up shaking his head.
"I'm disappointed, because I really didn't make good shots," Christian said. "I just hit him. I couldn't put the puck where I wanted to. It's frustrating.
"I was trying to get it away quick, because he covers a lot of net and he stood in there tonight."
Hartford Coach Tex Evans lavished praise on both Liut and Steve Weeks, who has allowed only three goals in three straight victories.
"Liut was exceptional tonight," Evans said. "He's been a star nearly every game. And Weeks is playing well, too. I'd say right now they're the best goalkeeping tandem in the NHL, the way they're playing.
"We've improved every facet of our game. Our penalty killing, checking and goalkeeping are excellent. What's disappointing is that we had that one bad stretch, from midseason to the All-Star Game, when we won only one of 14. It put us out of the picture, but we've regrouped and we're not giving up goals the way we were."
Just to make the Capitals' misery total, after they were fined $7,000 by the NHL Tuesday and played so poorly last night, forward David Jensen underwent surgery yesterday to reconstruct the ligaments in his left knee. Jensen was injured 10 days after he was traded to Washington by Hartford.