After 79 games and almost six months, the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers will decide the Patrick Division championship tonight at the Spectrum.
If the Capitals reached the showdown with the fuel gauge on empty, they made it nonetheless. Yielding two goals in the last two minutes of regulation, Washington survived a five-minute overtime for a 4-4 tie with the New York Rangers at Capital Centre. Meanwhile, the Flyers were winning in sudden death at Pittsburgh, 4-3, and will carry a one-point lead into tonight's game.
James Patrick's goal with 16 seconds left in regulation pulled New York even, as the Rangers wrapped up a playoff berth for the ninth straight season. They had figured on backing in over the Penguins when they trailed, 4-2, with two minutes left and many in the crowd of 17,672 were streaming out.
But Wilf Paiement came from behind the Washington net and tried to jam the puck, which was blocked by goalie Pete Peeters. Willie Huber beat Bob Carpenter to the rebound and with 1:51 left in regulation time, it was 4-3.
The Rangers pulled goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck for a sixth skater with 1:20 left and applied sufficient pressure for Washington Coach Bryan Murray to call a timeout with 20 seconds remaining.
"I wanted to keep Scott Stevens and Rod Langway out there and they'd been out so long they needed a blow," Murray said. "We've done it before and we're usually successful. This time we turned the puck over and it cost us a goal."
Carpenter took the faceoff against Mike Allison and got enough of the puck to send it toward Bob Gould. But Patrick picked off Gould's clearing attempt at the right point and fired a 45-footer into the far corner of the net.
If it was disappointing for Washington, it nevertheless was virtually meaningless. Win or tie last night, the Capitals would have needed to beat the Flyers tonight to finish first. They assured the tie by holding New York without a shot in the five-minute overtime, extending their unbeaten streak in extra time to 24 games.
Of the critical faceoff, Gould said: "The puck went toward me on the left side and it got in some guys' skates. It was sitting there and I tried to shoot it out, but I put it right on Patrick's stick. I've tried to think of what I should have done, but I'd do the same thing again. I just didn't get enough on it.
"I'm not overly disappointed, although I'm a little mad at myself. Any other night I'd be ranting and raving and kicking myself, but the big thing is we've got to get that win tomorrow night, and we'd have to do that anyway."
Considering the nature of this topsy-turvy race, which some had conceded to Philadelphia when it boasted an 11-point lead in February, it was perhaps inevitable that it should end this way.
The big task for the Capitals is to forget last night's collapse and to put out of mind an 0-3 record this season in the Spectrum, where they've scored only one goal.
"We have no choice now but to forget everything," Carpenter said. "It's a one-game season, that's all. It's a big game, for sure, and everything's on the line. We have to go in there and hope everybody plays the best they can play. It's easier said than done, but I think this team can do it. We sure won't be disappointed about tonight. We got what we needed. We gained a point."
Emotions were given a roller-coaster ride by last night's proceedings, as the Flyers never led until the finish in Pittsburgh and the Capitals seemed headed for victory after a sluggish start.
Bob Brooke put the Rangers ahead early in the second period, on their first goal at the Centre in 163 minutes 31 seconds, since Brooke connected in the second period of a 5-2 New York victory over Peeters on Nov. 29.
Al Jensen had shut out the Rangers twice since then, but Jensen, according to Murray, has been bothered by muscle spasms in his back, which has given Peeters the No. 1 job by default.
Stevens scored twice before the second period ended, his first two-goal game of the season, to send Washington in front. Then Dave Christian picked off an errant pass by Jim Wiemer and scored his 41st goal early in the third period. Don Maloney deflected Mark Osborne's shot past Peeters to make it 3-2, but Gould scored his sixth goal in the last seven games with 6:14 left to seemingly wrap it up.
Also of note, Washington's No. 1 draft pick of last June, left wing Yvon Corriveau, made his NHL debut in impressive fashion with some solid checks and all-round play, and the crowd boosted the Capitals' season total to a record 599,894.