The Philadelphia Flyers headed west a week ago with dreams of overhauling the Edmonton Oilers for the $200,000 payoff that rewards the best regular-season record in the National Hockey League.
Three losses later, the Flyers have stopped looking up. Instead, they are hearing the skate blades of the Washington Capitals, who today sit within three points of the Patrick Division lead.
The Capitals, home to the New Jersey Devils tonight while the Flyers play the Sabres at Buffalo, have 17 games remaining to Philadelphia's 16. The contenders meet three times, twice in the Spectrum where the Flyers have the best home record in the NHL, 25-4-1. The lone Capital Centre game, on March 23, already is sold out.
Each club will spend most of the last five weeks at home, with only six games apiece on the road. The opposition is comparable, too, with each team listed for 12 games against teams that are presently above the .500 mark. Of course, that figure encompasses 14 clubs, or two-thirds of the NHL.
"What it will probably come down to is the three games we have left with each other," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "I think that's a great way to end it. We know we have to win two out of three to beat them out.
"I'd like to finish ahead of Philly if possible, and the way we're playing now, I have to think it's possible. We've been playing solid, playoff-style hockey the last few games and we've been winning a lot of one-goal games 17 of 20 this season ."
While the Capitals players have the Flyers on their mind and were anxiously searching for the result Sunday when Edmonton beat Philadelphia in overtime, they know they have four other Patrick Division games of considerable importance before they visit Philadelphia March 13.
"We're trying to catch the Flyers, but you can't think about them when you're playing somebody else," said goalie Al Jensen. "We have to look after ourselves first, worry about the game we're playing and continue to win."
"We want to catch Philly. We don't want to slump in the last 20 games like we did last year," said defenseman Scott Stevens. "We're playing well defensively, the wings are helping us out and our goaltending has been great. I think we're ready for a run at them."
"If we can stay that close to them with 10 or 15 games to go and having that many games against them, it should make for a great finish," said center Alan Haworth. "That's what hockey is all about."
The Capitals have not been so close to Philadelphia since Nov. 1, when they trailed by two points and then were left hanging by the Flyers' 13-game winning streak.
On Dec. 18, Washington pulled within four points, but Philadelphia won five in a row to build a 10-point margin. When the Capitals again came within four on Jan. 7, a 4-0 loss at Philadelphia began a three-game Washington slide that permitted the Flyers to build their biggest gap of the season, 12 points.
On Feb. 22, after the Flyers beat Washington, 3-1, they led by 11, but Philadelphia has been winless since and the Capitals have won four straight. The big question now concerns the Flyers and their ability to cope with the disappointment of seeing Edmonton pull away.
Murray does not expect his club to encounter any more disappointments like those dreadful defeats in Detroit, Toronto and Pittsburgh.
"We had talked about the need for bearing down over the last 21 games, not necessarily to catch the Flyers, but to get things on the right track going into the playoffs," Murray said. "Certainly, the first four of those games would indicate the guys took the message to heart.
"We're going basically with four defensemen and three lines now, although the other guys will get ice time as the situation dictates. We're working on cleaning up our own end and the next thing is to get the power play going.
"We have to stop trying to make the fancy play and start shooting the puck. We should be getting more chances on the power play."
After clicking on only one of 20 opportunities, Washington succeeded three times in nine advantages during the weekend sweep of the New York Rangers, a wipeout that left the Rangers in a mood to praise the Capitals.
"This is the best team we've played in a long time," left wing Don Maloney said.
"We tested Jensen and he came up big," said Coach Ted Sator. "Washington is the third-best defensive team in the NHL. They're an excellent hockey team."
"They were hungry to get into the fight for first place, so we had a tough weekend," said Rangers captain Barry Beck.
The Rangers, who have four games remaining against Philadelphia, trail Pittsburgh by five points in the race for fourth place and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1977. North Stars 8, Red Wings 5
In Detroit, Dino Ciccarelli scored his 28th, 29th and 30th goals and Brian Lawton had two during a five-goal Minnesota second period. Winning their sixth game in seven, the North Stars clinched a playoff berth for the seventh straight season. Maple Leafs 6, Jets 1
Wendel Clark scored twice to set a club record for most goals by a Toronto rookie, 29, in leading the home victory over Winnipeg.