The Washington Capitals savored Coach Bryan Murray's 200th National Hockey League victory yesterday, completing a weekend sweep of the New York Islanders and enjoying a taste of the Patrick Division lead for the first time in 364 days.
It did not last, though, as the Philadelphia Flyers regained possession six hours later. But with two games in hand and a Tuesday date against Pittsburgh coming up, the Capitals have good reason to believe they can take it back before they visit Philadelphia Thursday.
Bob Carpenter, Craig Laughlin and Bob Gould scored the goals that carried the Capitals past the Islanders, 3-1, at Capital Centre for their seventh straight victory.
"We still have to beat them [the Flyers], probably two out of the three we have left with them," Murray said. "And now that we're in first place for a couple of hours, I'm sure they'll put things together again and be very tough against everybody, including us."
Murray's forecast proved accurate, as the Flyers breezed past the New York Rangers, 4-1, last night and moved back on top. But there can be no denying that the Capitals are playing outstanding hockey, best indicated by the meager yield of 11 goals in those seven successes.
A year ago, Washington had a four-point lead before dropping back-to-back games to the Flyers March 7-8. When Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh on March 10 and the Capitals lost to Boston, the Flyers went ahead to stay. Now the situation is reversed, with Washington on the way up and Philadelphia, a winner only twice in the last seven games, struggling to keep pace.
The extent of the Capitals' brilliance can best be illustrated by the postgame remarks of Islanders Coach Al Arbour, who insisted he intended no sarcasm.
"For the first time in a long time, I'm very optimistic about our team," Arbour said. "I saw some things out there today I haven't seen for a while. I have faith in these guys and I know we can do it. We're not going to bury our heads after this. We lit a fire under the team today, it's going to mushroom and we're going to build it higher and higher.
"The Capitals are on a roll and nothing can go wrong for them. What can you do?"
Yesterday, as in Saturday's 6-2 rout at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders could not do much except chop at the Capitals in frustration, drawing repeated penalties. Only an outstanding 34-save goaltending effort by Kelly Hrudey kept the game close.
Carpenter's lone shot of the weekend sent the Capitals in front late in the first period. Bryan Trottier was off for high sticking when marvelous passes by Scott Stevens and Alan Haworth left Carpenter open in the slot for his 22nd goal. It was Washington's 14th shot; at that stage, New York had tested Pete Peeters three times.
Brent Sutter picked off an errant pass by Peter Andersson and fed brother Duane for the Islanders' only goal early in the second period.
But another New York penalty, to Denis Potvin for tripping Mike Gartner, set up the winning score less than two minutes later. It was the kind of weird goal that used to haunt the Capitals, as Laughlin's centering pass from behind the goalline struck Hrudey's stick, caromed off his left skate and landed in the net.
"I tried to throw it across to Dave Christian and it hit a few things and went in," said Laughlin, who reached a career-high 21 goals despite skating on a tender left ankle. "We got the bounces again today."
Peeters got his left pad on a breakaway shot by Mike Bossy before the insurance goal was provided by Gould, who produced Saturday's game-winner. Larry Murphy's drive from the right point deflected off Gould, who was battling to maintain position in front of the net while defenseman Paul Boutilier vainly tried to shove him past the post.
"I was just in the right place at the right time," Gould said. "The puck went off my pad and into the net. It was a lucky goal. He [Boutilier] had covered me just like he was supposed to. It was a big goal, because a two-goal lead takes the pressure off quite a bit."
New York had one more chance to get back in it when Peeters blocked a shot by Potvin and the puck rolled behind him. John Tonelli swiped at it as it lay in the crease with the net vacant, but somehow missed and Rod Langway was able to shove it away.
The Capitals could have removed any further pressure had they scored during two stretches, of 19 seconds and 80 seconds, when they enjoyed two-man advantages. They didn't, so the sellout crowd of 18,130 was left with a tiny bit of concern.
Then, in the third period, Washington had some remarkable chances. Haworth rattled a post and was foiled by Hrudey at the finish of a three-on-one break. Bengt Gustafsson faked out the entire New York team, but missed Gaetan Duchesne with a pass while the empty net beckoned.
Peeters stopped all 10 New York shots, however, and the Islanders did not stir up much of a threat after lifting Hrudey for a sixth skater with 1:53 left.
The Capitals' penalty-killing unit skated off four Islanders advantages, for a perfect nine-for-nine weekend and a mark of 38 in the last 40.