It might have been a preview of the Stanley Cup final. The way the Washington Capitals played tonight in a 5-2 victory over the champion Edmonton Oilers, Washington hockey fans can only hope so.
The Capitals received brilliant, playoff-style goaltending from Al Jensen, who stopped 32 shots over the first two periods and 38 for the game. Then, in the third period, the Capitals broke a tense 1-1 deadlock with four straight goals.
Kevin Hatcher, Jorgen Pettersson, Alan Haworth and Mike Gartner put the puck past Edmonton's Grant Fuhr, who had made some impressive saves earlier under a 37-shot barrage from Washington.
But this was Jensen's night. The 40-shot total for the Oilers was the highest against the Capitals this season, and Jensen responded brilliantly. He stopped Wayne Gretzky nine times, on virtually every possible scoring chance.
"Al was unbelievable," said Coach Bryan Murray. "He stoned them in the first two periods, and I think he discouraged them, as much as that club can be discouraged.
"It was the kind of thing Billy Smith has done to us in the past. A hot goaltender can force you to change the way you shoot, and he certainly had them shaking their heads out there."
Jensen, who beat the Oilers by the same score at Capital Centre Nov. 12 while making 28 saves, stretched his personal unbeaten streak to 10 games, during which he has allowed only 20 goals.
"I wasn't quite that busy at home," Jensen said. "But give my teammates credit. They were pushing guys aside to let me come out and challenge the shooter, and they cleared the rebounds away pretty quick.
"You can't ever relax against that team. They're such an explosive hockey club. You have to concentrate the full 60 minutes, because they can explode any time.
"I know they were missing some big guns tonight, like (Mark) Messier (broken foot) and (Glenn) Anderson (league suspension), but they've still got a lot of good shooters. Every time you look up you see Gretzky out there. I don't know why he doesn't get tired.
"It's a great feeling to beat them and -- you never know -- we might wind up playing these guys in the final."
Pete Peeters, who has been alternating with Jensen since the Capitals acquired him from Boston, joked that "they're waiting outside to arrest Al. They call that being a thief."
After Jensen stopped 19 second-period shots, a season high against Washington, the Capitals came out flying for the third period. They applied tremendous offensive pressure, somewhat remarkable considering that some players have been ill and the team had a tough 4-4 overtime battle in Vancouver Tuesday.
Hatcher's goal at 1:10 put Washington ahead to stay, as he shot from the right point and the puck was deflected over the right shoulder of Fuhr, who was on his knees.
The man who actually put the puck in the net was Lou Franceschetti, who still does not have a goal this season.
"I tipped it, but I didn't want to say anything, because I was afraid they'd say I was in the crease and it wouldn't count," Franceschetti said.
A sensational goal by Pettersson, his first in five games as a Capital, made it 3-1. He moved in from the left-wing boards after picking off Randy Gregg's off-target pass, avoided a stick thrown by the Oilers' Don Jackson and spun in front to fake Gregg off his skates before lining the puck between Fuhr's pads.
"I hope that gets him going," Murray said. "I talked to him last night and he said he was uptight and pressing. I told him to relax and have some fun out there."
Another unassisted goal, the 16th of the season by Haworth, made it 4-1 with only 3:56 left. Haworth stole Marty McSorley's pass behind the Edmonton net, swept in front and lifted the puck over Fuhr.
Gartner provided some insurance with his 18th goal, knocking in a rebound of Bob Gould's shot with 2:26 left.
It was not until the last minute that Edmonton put a second puck past Jensen, Jeff Brubaker scoring on a goal-mouth deflection of a shot by Dave Lumley.
Jari Kurri opened the scoring on a first-period power-play setup from Gretzky, who extended his point-scoring streak to 23 games. Larry Murphy matched it for the Capitals with his third goal in two games.
This was only the second loss in 17 games for the Oilers and their first home setback in 11. Washington is unbeaten in its last seven and has lost only one of 15.
"It was a great feeling to win here," said Scott Stevens, who joined Jensen and Gretzky as the three stars. "I can't say enough for Al; he made so many great stops. We were a little flat in the first period, but once we got it going we really played well."
The lone problem area for Washington was the zero-for-seven power play.
Three times the extra-man situation was terminated by Washington penalties. Bob Carpenter, called a second time in that situation, complained so bitterly to referee Ron Hoggarth in the third period that he received an additional minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. It hardly slowed the Capitals down.