Either Mike Gartner or Bob Carpenter will be playing on the Washington Capitals' fourth line tonight when the Montreal Canadiens face off to begin Capital Centre's biggest hockey weekend of the season.
Whether Coach Bryan Murray's revamped lines will survive until Saturday's visit by the Stanley Cup-champion Edmonton Oilers is dependent on developments tonight.
Gartner and Carpenter prospered as linemates a year ago, when they recorded career highs of 50 and 53 goals, respectively. After 51 games this season, however, Gartner has managed only 27 goals, Carpenter a mere 17.
Sunday at Hartford, with Washington trailing, 4-0, Murray shuffled his lines and put Carpenter between Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould. Carpenter responded with two goals as Washington rallied to win, 5-4.
That unit will remain intact tonight. Gartner, meanwhile, will skate at right wing on a line that has Mark Taylor at center and Jorgen Pettersson, who missed the previous five games with a bruised knee, at left wing.
Murray puts no official numerical designation on his lines, but if he did, one of the two new trios would be No. 3, the other No. 4.
The plumbers -- Alan Haworth, Craig Laughlin and Greg Adams -- have been the Capitals' best all-round line all season. Bengt Gustafsson and Dave Christian, skating tonight with Lou Franceschetti, are second by a whisker.
"Now there is no fourth line," Murray said. "I think we have four lines that can play with pretty good talent, although on certain occasions I will stack a line.
"Mike and Bobby obviously are having some trouble getting things going. I've waited 50 games and now it's time to move on and try them with different combinations, see if they can get their plus-minus figures under control.
"They're trying hard. They're just not accomplishing what they're capable of. Duchesne and Gould are playing very well and they should help Bobby get going, as they did in Hartford. It's a real upgrade for Mark Taylor, playing with Pettersson and Gartner."
Carpenter's minus 15 is the poorest rating on the team. Gartner, a plus player in each of his six previous NHL seasons, is minus 12. Neither expressed any objections to the new setup.
"Gates and Gouldie and I worked pretty well together Sunday," Carpenter said. "I know one of them will get back defensively, so I don't feel as responsible and I don't have to wait for an opportunity.
"I'm not the kind of guy who gets two goals in two shots. I need a lot of chances. I like being in front of the net and I like the idea of having more freedom. It means I can just go -- handle the puck more and shoot more. I guess it's the fourth line. You could say I'm going from the unknown line to the fourth line."
"One to four, pick your number," Gartner said. "I'll play where I'm told. I'm not going to complain about it. It's a little tough at first getting used to new linemates, but it's the same game. It's not a different sport.
"Each centerman has a different style, a different way to carry the puck or positioning in the offensive zone. It takes a few games to get used to that."
Pete Peeters, idle since Jan. 24 with a pulled stomach muscle, was sharp in practice yesterday and will play tonight. If he looks good, he figures to face Edmonton, as well, because Al Jensen was limited to routine work yesterday, his first day of practice since he twisted his left knee in Hartford Sunday.
Murray is hoping the team will play the way it did in the third period against New Jersey and Hartford and not as it did in the other 10 periods it played last week.
"We're playing two really good hockey teams and there is reason to be highly motivated and play good, solid hockey," Murray said. "Obviously, we were not motivated against Detroit, Toronto and New Jersey.
"But Montreal and Edmonton are quality teams, both in first place, and the fact that we've beaten them before should give us a good feeling and also give them incentive. I think Edmonton, after losing the first two, will be gunning for us like you can't believe."
Although the Edmonton game is a sellout, fans without tickets can watch the Oilers today at Mount Vernon Ice Rink, where they will practice from 1:15 to 2:15 p.m.