The Washington Capitals will be battling the law of averages as well as the Penguins tonight at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
Washington has beaten the Penguins nine straight times and is unbeaten in the teams' last 16 meetings, winning 15. The Capitals have not lost in Pittsburgh since Oct. 27, 1982, when Dave Parro was in goal for a 7-5 setback. Since then, they have won 10 at the Civic Arena and tied another.
This season, Washington has beaten Pittsburgh three times, yielding only five goals in the process. Just as they swept the three-game Edmonton series by limiting Wayne Gretzky's production (one goal, three assists), the Capitals have frustrated the Penguins by shackling center Mario Lemieux.
Although he ranks second to Gretzky in the NHL scoring race with 94 points, Lemieux has managed only one assist in the three games against Washington. The Capitals have done it with an assortment of lines, and the fact that Pittsburgh Coach Bob Berry has the last change tonight is no guarantee of success for Lemieux.
Mike Gartner, as he did against Edmonton, will skate with Dave Christian and Bengt Gustafsson on a line that includes the Capitals' top three scorers. It was Gustafsson who kept Gretzky in check Saturday, so Berry may try to find a weak spot elsewhere. It won't be easy.
Bob Carpenter, who will skate with Gaetan Duchesne and Bob Gould, shut out Lemieux in an earlier Capital Centre game. The Alan Haworth-Greg Adams-Craig Laughlin line boasts the club's plus-minus leaders in Haworth (27) and Laughlin (25).
"I like the idea of balance, although I wouldn't mind if Mike had 100 points and the other guys had 99 and 98," said Coach Bryan Murray. "We now have three lines we can count on in almost every situation.
"Each line can create scoring chances and gives us more balance and more people we can count on. And I don't see any defensive problems there, either."
Gustafsson has been the Capitals' best all-around player and he said, "It's good so many guys are right there. It's all pretty equal and we don't have to rely on one guy. It's been a great season so far and David and I are having a great time out there."
Lemieux has been having a good time, too, except when he faces Washington. Mocking the so-called sophomore jinx, he has 24 points in his last 12 games, recording at least one point in each. He has at least one assist in 11 straight games.
"He's something," Murray said. "He's passing the puck and doing things you wouldn't believe. He gives people some great chances to score. I don't think you can keep him out, but some nights he doesn't shoot enough."
Besides being the league's No. 2 scorer, Lemieux recently signed a contract -- four years plus an option year -- for a reported $650,000 a season, making him second to Gretzky on payday, too.
It is generally agreed that Lemieux saved the Pittsburgh franchise, which until he arrived last season was hanging on more because of the stubbornness of Edward DeBartolo Sr. than because of any progress on the ice or at the box office.
"He means just about everything to us," said Pittsburgh General Manager Eddie Johnston. "He does a lot off the ice for us and he handles himself very well. He'll go any place we want.
"We're starting to draw well against almost every team in the league, because of the simple reason that they want to see him. We used to draw only against certain teams."
The Penguins had a sellout of 16,033 for Saturday's home game against New Jersey, which typically stirs as much interest as a Pirates game in September.
"If Lemieux hadn't gone to Pittsburgh, they'd have lost the franchise by now," said Edmonton Coach Glen Sather. "Whatever they're paying him is a good deal."
While Lemieux has been the catalyst in Pittsburgh's drive for a playoff berth, he is not a one-man team. After viewing recent videotapes of the Penguins, Murray said, "They're moving the puck right now as well as most teams I've seen in the league.
"Before, they were doing a lot of individual things and weren't really successful. Now, they're using the ice, passing the puck well and shooting well. They're doing things as a team."
It is important for the Capitals to get off to a good start on this trip, the season's longest, because following tonight's game and Saturday's game in Los Angeles, things get very rough, indeed. Washington will visit the New York Islanders Feb. 18, Montreal Feb. 19, Philadelphia Feb. 22 and Buffalo Feb. 23.
Murray has set a goal of four victories in the six games and he said, "The first two games we should be better than those two clubs. The next four will be very difficult in their buildings and it will be a challenge.
"But we're a top club and we have to make demands on our players if we're going to put ourselves in a position to challenge for the top spot in March."