The party is over for the Washington Capitals. Following tonight's team Christmas party, premature because of the upcoming schedule, the Capitals will leave town on a five-game, nine-day itinerary that rivals Santa Claus for seasonal wanderings.
The journey to Los Angeles, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec marks the first time the club has been out of town more than 24 hours since it returned from Chicago on Oct. 28.
Still, the fact that the Capitals are unbeaten in their last four road games makes the upcoming trip more palatable, and after three straight one-goal triumphs on home ice, Coach Bryan Murray is not unhappy about a change of scenery.
"It will be very different from the last six weeks and it's not an ideal time to go on the road, but I think it might be good for us," Murray said. "On the road, we seem to play more as a unit, more systematic.
"It's time to try to do things as a line and the fact that the team hangs around together more and does things together on the road should have a good effect.
"The last three games, playing St. Louis, Vancouver and Toronto, we've had a chance to score a lot of goals and we haven't finished very well. The change could be good for us."
Washington has lost only three of its last 20 games to reach the one-third mark of the season with a 17-7-3 record and 37 points, third best in the NHL behind Edmonton's 46 and Philadelphia's 42.
Since the Capitals had two games in hand on both teams before the Oilers played in Chicago last night, the players naturally expressed more than a passing interest in Tuesday's announcement by the NHL that it would honor the top team in the regular season with a new President's Trophy and a monetary award of $200,000.
"That's a pretty good chunk of money and it could be a lot of incentive," said right wing Craig Laughlin, whose 25 points and plus-11 rating make him one of the club's elite players at this stage. "There's no reason why we can't finish first."
"I think it's a great idea," Murray said. "It's time some recognition was given to the team that finishes first overall. The financial reward is nice, too. If there wasn't reason before to go all out in the regular season, there is now."
The Capitals' practice session yesterday at Mount Vernon was devoted to fitness testing, with each player, at fixed intervals, skating the length of the ice and two-thirds of the way back, six times.
Although the principal idea was to measure recovery time and to perform each succeeding sprint as closely as possible to the time of the first, there was considerable interest in the fastest dash and Bob Carpenter nosed out Mike Gartner.
The swift first attempt gave Carpenter a needed boost in morale. After the testing, he was one of seven players invited by Murray to perform in a practice session "for guys who needed extra ice time."
Carpenter, a 53-goal scorer last year, has only seven so far this year.
Receiving high marks in the testing were Dave Christian and Bengt Gustafsson, who have been outstanding in every respect. Christian has 16 goals in the last 20 games, Gustafsson 16 assists in his last 17.
Murray and assistants Ron Lapointe and Terry Murray monitored the tests closely to eliminate any tendencies to coast and many players staggered off the ice afterward. Wednesday Games: Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri scored three goals apiece and Wayne Gretzky tied an NHL record with seven assists as Edmonton beat Chicago, 12-9; Brian Bellows scored four goals, Scott Bjugstad three and Keith Acton two to lead Minnesota over Detroit, 10-2, and second-period goals by Miroslav Frycer and Al Iafrate helped Toronto beat St. Louis, 6-4.
Jim Nill scored the lead goal 7:55 into the third period and the Jets went on to beat the Canucks, 6-3. Mark Pavelich got the game-winner on a second-period power play as the New York Rangers defeated New Jersey, 4-2; Bob Gainey, Mats Naslund and Chris Nilan scored as Montreal beat Hartford, 3-1, and Mike Bullard got his second goal of the game midway through the third period to give Pittsburgh a 4-4 tie with the Islanders.