Coach Bryan Murray held several individual and group discussions yesterday with what he calls the Washington Capitals' "defensive corps." With Bengt Gustafsson and Mike Gartner missing, it is obvious that only an all-out defensive effort will bring the Patrick Division championship to Capital Centre.
The foundation for such a feat still is in place, since this is basically the same team that earned the Jennings Trophy two years ago by permitting only 226 goals. Last year an increased emphasis on offense resulted in 14 more goals, but the goals-against also increased by 14 to 240 and Buffalo took the Jennings by three.
So far this season the Capitals are scoring at slightly below last year's pace, but they already have given up 258 goals and have been outdistanced by Philadelphia in the Jennings competition.
"I've been meeting with the defensive corps today, pointing out some things we saw over the weekend that we liked and some things we didn't like," Murray said. "It wasn't all negative. It was a teaching thing, too, emphasizing what we want and need the rest of the way."
Washington has given up 33 goals in the last eight games, with the six goals in Hartford Saturday the most since an 8-1 loss in Pittsburgh Feb. 12.
With Pittsburgh coming to sold-out Capital Centre tonight and no Gustafsson available to check Mario Lemieux, Murray no doubt had visions of another disaster, so he wanted to remind certain players of their defensive responsibilities.
Washington must win this game if it hopes to finish first, because despite a technical tie at 102 points, the Flyers have an extra victory and that is the first tie-breaking criterion.
"I believe very strongly that our defensive corps can be solid and, after watching the tapes, I'm convinced our goaltending can be excellent," Murray said. "Our goaltending is superior to just about anybody else in the league.
"But the rest of the defensive corps has to do its part. We've got to eliminate second shots and not give advantages to the other team by turning the puck over. Our defensemen have to think defense first and pick their spots better when they move up. We've been allowing too many two-on-ones and three-on-ones."
Gustafsson was largely responsible for limiting Lemieux to one goal and four assists in six games this season. With Gustafsson's leg broken, Murray must look elsewhere and he conceded there was no easy solution.
"It will be difficult," Murray said. "People like [Bob] Gould and [Bob] Carpenter will have to play bigger in that area. They've been playing big, but now they have to fill the other role as well, playing against top people. It's a matter of confidence and getting the job done.
"Gus was an instinctive player, with a lot of skills. He's going to be hard to replace. We know that."
To compound the problem, Gould and Scott Stevens were ill and missed yesterday's practice. Carpenter, however, looked good and he has raised the level of his game recently.
"I think we'll be all right," Carpenter said. "We have to keep putting the puck in the net, but remember defense, too. Everybody has to pitch in and do a little extra."
Asked about the chore of containing Lemieux, Carpenter said, "We want to keep the puck in their zone as much as we can and frustrate him that way. And we have to get on him when he gets the puck and make him dish it off, then try to keep him from getting it back."
Asked if he felt added pressure because each opposition goal will be that harder to match, goaltender Pete Peeters, who is scheduled to face Pittsburgh tonight, said, "No, you can only do your best. I wasn't here last year, but I'm told the team this year was playing more offensively than last year."
Al Jensen, Peeters' partner, said there would be extra pressure on everybody to keep the net empty.
"This really makes us a defensive hockey team and we have to make the score as low as possible," Jensen said. "There's pressure on us, sure. But we're playing defensive hockey as a team and no particular guy has to do it all."
Yvon Corriveau and Grant Martin skated at yesterday's practice on a line with Steve Leach, who scored his first NHL goal in Hartford Saturday. Martin said he was tired -- and looked it -- after playing seven games in nine days for the Binghamton Whalers. Rangers 9, Devils 0: In New York, Brian MacLellan, James Patrick and Kelly Miller each scored two goals as the Rangers beat New Jersey and solidified their hold on the fourth and final Patrick Division playoff spot last night.
The Rangers' victory gave them a three-point lead over the idle Pittsburgh Penguins as the season headed into its final week. New York has three games left and Pittsburgh four. Jets 5, Kings 2: Ray Neufeld had a hat trick and defenseman Randy Carlyle scored two goals, leading Winnipeg to a victory over Los Angeles in Inglewood, Calif., that clinched a playoff berth for the Jets.