The Washington Capitals are on a roll, brimming with confidence and close to 100 percent physically. That is bad news for the New York Rangers, who on Wednesday night will try to even the best-of-seven Patrick Division final at two games each.
The Capitals' closest brush with disaster since the playoffs began occurred more than 200 miles away late Monday night when left wing Lou Franceschetti was involved in an automobile accident on the Capital Beltway in Greenbelt, Md.
Franceschetti did not play in the Capitals' 6-3 victory here in Game 3 because he was at the bedside of his wife, Diane, who gave birth to their first child, 9-pound Melissa.
Afterward, Franceschetti was headed home to pick up luggage when a spare tire from a disabled van rolled across the Beltway. In trying to avoid it, he swerved into a car in the next lane and the two vehicles bumped once more before coming to a stop.
Franceschetti, although uninjured, was the somewhat shaken possessor of a totaled car and was able to join the team for today's practice at Ice World in Totowa, N.J. Although the Capitals won without him Monday to take a 2-1 lead in the series, his absence was noted, because Washington's forechecking was considerably less physical than when he was leading the charge in the 8-1 romp at Capital Centre Saturday.
"I was cruising along in the left lane about 55 or 60 and all of a sudden a van on the shoulder lost a wheel," Franceschetti said. "I saw it and tried to swerve and hit the car next to me. Then the car swung back and hit me.
"Nobody was hurt, but the other guy was saying how lucky we were we didn't go sailing over the overpass. And there were no tractor trailers around, either, thank God, or it would have been game over.
"I was so pumped up, with the baby finally coming after 20 hours in labor and the team winning the game, I was going home to pack just before midnight and then I was going to sleep at the airport, so there was no chance I'd miss my flight. After the accident, I went home and tried to sleep it off."
Franceschetti had a busy night at the hospital, where he divided his time between comforting his wife in her extended labor and watching the hockey game on a television screen.
"We skated really well and took advantage of our chances," Franceschetti said. "And Pete Peeters was great. That save he made on Mike Ridley with the game scoreless was unbelievable."
Peeters blocked 39 shots in his sixth straight route-going playoff effort. The stop on Ridley was the biggest one, however, and it had to discourage the Rangers. Ridley was open at the right post when Reijo Ruotsalainen slid the puck across to him and Peeters dove to his left to smother the shot.
Accordingly, on a day when most teams would have enjoyed a brief, relaxed skate, Murray put the Capitals through an hour drill.
The Capitals' game plan remains unchanged -- pressure the New York defense, hit hard and try to score early. Washington has jumped ahead in all six playoff games and never has trailed, except at the instant that the Rangers won Game 1 in overtime.
If the team's fortunes seem to be on the right track after a history of wrong turns, the same could be said of Franceschetti. He has been in the Washington organization longer than any other player, but until this season -- his eighth as a pro -- he had played only 62 NHL games, eight of them in the playoffs.
This year, he skated in 76 and scored seven goals, boosting his career total to 14. If that seems rather meager, then welcome to the world of the role player.
Franceschetti's role is to get involved, which is hockey terminology for giving up one's body to punish the opposition. He showed his value Saturday when his checks lit a fire under his teammates.
Two years ago, after six seasons in the Capitals' organization and only 32 games in a Washington uniform, Franceschetti was finishing a termination contract and appeared to have reached the end of the line. Injuries during the playoffs gave him a chance, however, and he battled the Islanders so doggedly that he was given a new contract.
The contract did not prevent Franceschetti from starting season No. 7 in Binghamton. Late in the year, he was called up to the Capitals, where he managed four goals in 22 games. During the playoffs, he had a goal and an assist against the Islanders and was a solid plus-three.
This season, Franceschetti has been a regular since training camp. After a slow start, he has become a key factor with his punishing checks, and Wednesday night he will be playing on one of the Capitals' top lines alongside Bob Carpenter and Dave Christian.
"Two years ago, I just put my mind to it, that I was not going to go to the minors and float," Franceschetti said. "I was willing to stick my nose in at any cost.
"But the big knock against me was, could I do it for an 80-game schedule? This year, I did it for the last 55 games after a slow start. Beginning in December, I took the body and things progressed.
"I was discouraged for a while, being stuck in the minors year after year, but in the back of my mind I didn't want to quit hockey and have to say later, 'Louie, did you give yourself an honest chance?' I'm lucky David Poile, the Capitals' general manager came along when he did, because any other management probably would have gotten rid of me."