And then it was one. The Washington Capitals, with a big assist from the Buffalo Sabres, closed within one point of the Patrick Division lead last night by beating the New Jersey Devils, 4-2, for their fifth straight victory.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the first-place Flyers lost to the Sabres, 6-4, for their fourth consecutive loss.
"It's not often the Flyers lose four in a row," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "It's certainly become an interesting race again."
For a while tonight, Murray was a bit concerned that the Capitals were worrying too much about the scoreboard and not enough about the Devils, who played their usual tenacious game and displayed their usual inability to finish off good scoring chances.
When the crowd of 11,728 roared while nothing much was happening on the ice, it was obvious to the players, many of whom looked up at the TelScreen, that the fans were reacting to partial scores from Philadelphia.
"I knew it was that," said Rod Langway, voted the No. 1 star for another outstanding defensive effort. "It is distracting when players look up and maybe don't have their minds on what they're doing on the ice. But it's a learning experience, too, and if we get help from outside that's a plus for us."
A New Jersey goal by Kirk Muller, who intercepted a pass by goalie Pete Peeters and hit the empty net with Peeters looking foolish 20 feet away, put the Capitals at an early disadvantage.
But Scott Stevens, Alan Haworth, Mike Gartner and Craig Laughlin put the puck past the Devils' Alain Chevrier and the Capitals were able to defeat the Devils for a sixth straight time.
"Thank God we don't have to play them again," Murray said. "It's always such a battle to win the hockey game. We get chances and we can't put them away, and they work hard all the time."
The Capitals faced a somewhat harder battle than usual because they were playing without center Bengt Gustafsson, who bruised his right hand Saturday and was held out to give it plenty of time to heal before the next game Saturday on Long Island.
"When Gus doesn't play, we're lacking some things," Murray said. "He is our most creative guy up front. But that's no excuse not to be more coordinated than we were tonight. It was a case of too many guys trying to do too many individual things, and we had no forechecking at all early."
After Peeters' "goofy goal," which has almost become a first-period ritual, the Capitals got a break of their own. A drive by Bob Gould deflected off the skate of New Jersey's Paul MacLean and wound up on Stevens' stick in the left-wing circle. He had it in the net before Chevrier could react to the change of direction.
Early in the second period, Haworth became a 30-goal scorer for the first time as he put Washington ahead to stay. Jorgen Pettersson started the play with a pass from behind the net to Langway at the left point. Chevrier blocked Gartner's deflection of Langway's shot, but Haworth netted the rebound despite the close checking of Uli Hiemer.
"I kind of dived a little for it and with everybody crowded in front, I just whacked at it," Haworth said. "It feels good after all these years to score 30 goals in the NHL. That's something to look at."
It took a long time for the Capitals to expand their lead. Haworth faked out two Devils and skated in alone, only to hit a post when Chevrier stood tall and reduced the target area. Then, with Washington two men up for 71 seconds, Chevrier made three saves and the Devils' defense blocked four other shots.
A slashing penalty charged to Perry Anderson for assaulting sort-of-namesake Peter Andersson, gave Washington's power play another chance and this time Gartner connected from the top of the right-wing circle. It was his 32nd goal and it came just 39 seconds before the second intermission.
Greg Adams cut between two Devils early in the third period and put a tough backhander on net. Chevrier stopped it, but Craig Laughlin netted the rebound. It was the 53rd point, a career high, for Laughlin, who had missed five games with a sprained ankle.
Greg Adams, New Jersey variety, completed the scoring one second before the expiration of a penalty to Mark Taylor. It was only the second power-play goal yielded by the Capitals' penalty killers in 31 shorthanded situations.
There were a couple of other downers during the evening. Bob Carpenter, thrown down by the Devils' Dave Lewis, needed four stitches to close a cut in his mouth, in the same area where he was gashed by Tomas Sandstrom's head butt on Sunday.
Then there were the fans in the stands who threw coins on the ice, apparently to celebrate Buffalo goals.