The irony was not lost on Bengt Gustafsson.
Saturday night, Gustafsson's only assignment for the Washington Capitals was to make sure Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers' star and the National Hockey League's leader in points with 147, didn't light up the scoreboard. Gustafsson not only took care of that task, he scored at 3:42 of overtime to give Washington a 5-4 victory over Edmonton in front of 18,130 at Capital Centre.
"Me and Dave (Christian) and Mike (Gartner) were supposed to keep his line off the scoreboard, and I think we did a good job," Gustafsson said. "But we're also three guys who can go forward, too. We had a lot of chances, and we were lucky to get one at the end -- a big one."
Gustafsson said that playing against the Oilers center is different from playing against anyone else.
"I just try to keep him away from the puck and stay between him and our net," Gustafsson said. "If he gets the puck, you want him to have to make big, wide turns, and then you hope the other guys pick up the rest of their team.
"When I play him, I just concentrate on him. In other games, I can play a normal game. But today, my job was to keep him away from the puck."
Because he was on home ice, Capitals Coach Bryan Murray had the last line change during play stoppages against the Stanley Cup champions, whom the Capitals have beaten three straight times for a season series sweep. Gustafsson and defensemen Rod Langway or Scott Stevens were nearly always on the ice when Gretzky and linemates Jari Kurri and Dave Hunter were playing.
Gretzky had two assists. Gustafsson was on for the first, although it was a bit dubious. Gretzky made a relatively unspectacular pass to Hunter in the circle to the right of goalie Pete Peeters. Peeters got his stick on Hunter's shot, but the puck ricocheted off the boards behind the net, bounced off Peeters' heel and went into the goal.
The Alan Haworth-Craig Laughlin-Greg Adams line was on when Gretzky earned his second assist. Hunter made a backhand pass to Gretzky coming down the slot to the right of Peeters, and Gretzky put a pass on the stick of Kurri, who was on the other side of the crease. Although Edmonton Coach Glen Sather uses several players in the left wing spot on Gretzky's line, Kurri is consistently on the right. His goal Saturday night made him the first 40-goal scorer in the league this season.
"The key to the game was Gus against Gretzky, and Langway likewise against that (Gretzky) line," Murray said.
"The (Gustafsson) line has to work awfully hard, cover the wings and do an honest job. The big thing that Gus does is play pretty much a man-to-man on Gretzky in the neutral zone. He tries to limit the number of chances Gretzky has to make plays for himself and his linemates, and he did a pretty good job in that area. And we put pressure on them by attacking (Gretzky's) line."
Gretzky, who has not scored a goal in the last six games, wasn't sure why the Capitals have had the Oilers' number this year, although he said it may have something to do with the Capitals starting quickly while the Oilers take longer to get moving.
"They play well against us," Gretzky said. "They work hard together, they're pretty disciplined and they're well-coached. Unfortunately, they've beaten us three times. But then, it's only two points."
Gretzky said the Capitals didn't do anything in particular against him that other teams don't do, but he praised Gustafsson.
"Gustafsson is a good hockey player," Gretzky said. "He's out there doing the best he can, and I'm out there doing the best I can, but they won the game and that's what counts."
Defensing Gretzky is a constant activity. An opponent has to always stay close, a tactic that is usually more successful than trying to make a fantastic play after Gretzky has had a chance to get started. Saturday night, Gustafsson did both. Midway through the third period, as the Capitals were nearing the end of a power play, Gretzky stole the puck from Peter Andersson at the point and was off on a breakaway. As Gretzky got to the red line, the Oilers' Glenn Anderson came out of the penalty box. Gretzky made a short pass to him just inside the blueline and might have scored on the return pass, were it not for Gustafsson.
"I don't think they saw me, and they were just taking their time," he said. "When he gave it to Anderson, I just dove, trying to get something. I was lucky and got Gretzky's legs. Anderson got the pass over my stick, so it was lucky that I got his legs."
Langway suggested that prayer may be helpful when defensing Gretzky.
"He sees all of the ice, in front of him and behind," Langway said.
"He's the most knowledgeable hockey player to come along, and he has as quick a first step as anybody in the league, which is where he gets some of the extra time. He's only about 170 pounds, but he's as strong on his stick as a 200-pounder. You don't usually take the puck off his stick with brute strength."
Like anybody else, Gretzky likes the open ice.
"You just try to get him to the boards and hope he runs out of ice," Langway said.
"But he's like a pitcher who can hang a pitch in the air for 10 seconds and also throw one by you. He can make a flip pass or fire one that goes right onto the stick. He's got the greatest hands."
Late in the third period, Gretzky, Kurri and Hunter came on during a change on the fly. A few seconds later, the Capitals also changed on the go. Gartner took two steps onto the ice, looked for the puck, looked for Gretzky, who was circling near center ice, and then motioned to Langway.
"Though you have to do that with a lot of guys on that team, every time he's on the ice, me and my defensive partner have the responsibility of finding him," Langway said.
"You have to because the puck is coming to him. He's like a magnet. The puck follows him around."
The Capitals have returned goalie Bob Mason to Binghamton of the American Hockey League. Al Jensen practiced yesterday and is expected to be able to face the Penguins when the Capitals visit Pittsburgh on Wednesday.