Neither ice nor slush nor gloom of scoreboard seems able to keep the Washington Capitals from their appointed round, a Sunday showdown with the Philadelphia Flyers for the Patrick Division championship.
Except for the commercial signs, the Capital Centre scoreboard was dead last night, and the ice could have passed for quicksand in spots. Still, the Capitals were working, hard enough to conquer the pesky Hartford Whalers, 4-2, and climb back into a tie with the Flyers at 106 points.
Washington entertains the New York Rangers Saturday, while the Flyers travel to Pittsburgh.
Lou Franceschetti produced the winning goal early in the third period, off some superb passes by Craig Laughlin and Bob Carpenter, and Dave Christian wrapped it up with a goal into a vacated net with 29 seconds left.
The Whalers, foiled in a bid to clinch their first playoff berth in six seasons, took a timeout with 85 seconds left and a faceoff in their end. So adept was Washington's forechecking that goalie Mike Liut never did get off for a sixth skater. He was heading for the bench when Christian picked off a Ron Francis pass just outside the blueline and quickly unloaded the shot that made him the fourth 40-goal scorer in the Capitals' history.
"We were positioned in the right places and we kept picking off their passes at the end," Christian said. "I was lucky to get that one, though. If I'd missed it, they'd have had it in our zone and it would have been a scramble.
"I made a bet at the beginning of the season that I'd score 35. Everything after that has been a bonus, and now I'm just hoping I can keep it going in the playoffs, too."
Pete Peeters once again turned in a strong game in the Washington net, stopping 25 shots. He maintained a 2-2 deadlock throughout a scoreless second period while the Capitals were being outshot, 10-4.
Franceschetti scored the winner at 1:12 of the third period, breaking for the net as Carpenter put the puck on his stick. Franceschetti golfed it off the helmet of the flopping Liut and into the net.
"We had to put our minds to it in the third period," Franceschetti said. "It was do or die in this game. We can't get two points down. the heat was a factor and the ice was bad, so we were kind of loafing in the second period, and we had no forechecking at all. I'm glad we were able to change things."
After they fell behind, the Whalers took some risks and the Capitals had one breakaway after another. Carpenter failed twice and Christian and Haworth were stymied, too, with the sloppy ice as big a factor as Liut's stick.
"I had him down both times and the puck rolled off the end of my stick," Carpenter said. "This is the worst ice in the league right now. You can't handle the puck. They should use it for basketball, the way everything is bouncing all over the place. When the linesmen drop the puck, you can't even tell where it'll go. It hits a rut and goes anywhere."
The Whalers, whose eight-game unbeaten streak ended, declined to use the ice as an excuse, but it obviously was a factor in a number of plays that missed connections.
"It was kind of funny, because it seemed like good ice to skate on, but the puck was always bouncing up whenever you went to make a play," said Dean Evason, whose 19th goal gave the Whalers a short-lived 2-1 lead in the first period.
It was still 2-1 when another ex-Capital, Doug Jarvis, took the puck away from Alan Haworth and mushed in on a two-on-one break. As Jarvis shot, defenseman Greg Smith dove and kicked the puck away in what might have been the biggest play of the night.
Instead of trailing, 3-1, the Capitals soon were even at 2-2. Haworth retrieved a rebound of a Greg Adams shot and passed the puck to Larry Murphy in the slot. Murphy beat Liut on the stick side for his 21st goal, tying the club record for a defenseman shared by Robert Picard and Scott Stevens.
"Anytime you're down and you tie the game up, it's a big goal," said Murphy, scoring for the third straight game. "But I was confident somebody else would get it if I didn't."
Referee Terry Gregson called only four penalties, one to Haworth for cross-checking Stewart Gavin into the boards. Gavin suffered a slight fracture of the top vertebra and will be out at least a week.
Of course, the Whalers' season might end Sunday. They lead Buffalo by two points and have two more victories than the Sabres. Each club has two games left.
"I'm real nervous," Jarvis said. "This has been a real intense month for us. We've had to treat every game like do or die, a playoff-type game, and we're not out of the woods yet."
Capitals center Bengt Gustafsson underwent surgery yesterday to repair his broken right leg.
Although the bone snapped just below the kneecap, no damage to the knee occurred, according to Dr. Stephen Haas, who performed the operation.
Gustafsson will be released from George Washington University Hospital today. He is expected to begin rehabilitation in two to three months. Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 2: Charlie Simmer scored two goals, giving him 36 for the season, and Keith Crowder got his 35th as Boston defeated visiting Toronto.