LAKE PLACID, N.Y., SEPT. 29 -- The Washington Capitals are a very good team. Whether they will become one of the great ones may well depend on the success of their power play.
"I think the power play will be the determining factor," team captain Rod Langway said today. "Because of our speed, we get more opportunities than most teams. Mike Gartner probably draws 60 minutes himself because of guys grabbing him that can't keep up.
"When teams take penalties, we have to burn them. We ought to be able to put teams out of it after two periods. Last year, we let teams stay in because of our power play. It changed the momentum; it got the fans on us; it became a negative. If we want to be first and go farther in the playoffs, we have to make it a positive."
Traditionally, the Capitals have stumbled with the extra man. "Decline the penalty" has been a cry of Capital Centre critics since the night in the mid-70s when Buffalo's Don Luce scored two shorthanded goals during one penalty.
The four-overtime finale in the playoffs obscured a brutal statistic -- the Capitals were able to convert only two of 36 extra-man chances in the seven-game series against the New York Islanders.
As recently as Friday, the Capitals heard the boos of Capital Centre fans when they not only failed to put a shot on goal during a four-minute advantage against the U.S. Olympic team, but managed to take the puck across the Olympians' blue line just twice.
Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that the power play is a priority during this week of intensive drills at the Olympic Center and, according to Coach Bryan Murray, it will remain a prominent item on the practice agenda.
The power-play units responsible for the Olympic fiasco were makeshift groups and Murray does not expect a repetition from the men he has designated for seasonal duty. Larry Murphy, Scott Stevens, Garry Galley and either Mike Gartner or Michal Pivonka will be the point men behind forward units of Bengt Gustafsson-Mike Ridley-Dave Christian and Dale Hunter-Craig Laughlin-Gartner/Pivonka.
"We're going to spend a lot of time on it, almost on a daily basis," Murray said. "We've tried to upgrade our patterns and I expect quicker passing -- touch passing. Everybody in the league is so aggressive killing penalties, the puck has to be moved quicker.
"The defensemen have to move at least a stride or two quicker and, if they shoot, they have to get it past the first man. I think this year we have the people -- Gustafsson in particular -- with the athletic ability to receive and get rid of the puck in an accurate manner. Last year at times we lost the puck because of a lack of puck skills.
"On the breakout, we have to get the puck to a guy with speed as many times as we can. Last year, teams were getting second and third chances to take it away from us."
The opposition took advantage of those chances to score 15 shorthanded goals. Since Washington converted only 65 of 355 opportunities to rank 18th in the NHL, obviously the power play was an important factor in the team's slip to 86 points, its lowest figure since 1981-82.
"It's imperative that we start off well and get a good success percentage right from the beginning," Murphy said. "With the power play, you can get a positive roll or a negative roll. If it goes great, you become more creative and get better. If it's not good, you press and scramble and it gets worse.
"It comes down to a matter of execution. We have to put it in the net. If you get good opportunities and don't capitalize, you start to second guess and it breaks down. We can't have that happening again."
The Olympic Center ice surface is 15 feet wider than the normal NHL rink and Gartner left more than one defender badly beaten today. Christian, a defenseman for the U.S. 1980 gold-medal winners, said, "I'd forgotten how much wider the ice is. It was an experience playing defense here. I got turned around more than once." . . . The players chanted, "U.S.A., U.S.A." and loosed ghostly wails for the benefit of Warren Strelow, the goaltender coach who guided the U.S. goalies in 1980, who said, "That was an unbelievable experience. I still get goose bumps when I think about it. I wouldn't be surprised to hear the ghosts of those guys out there on the rink." . . . The Capitals must leave one regular unprotected in Monday's waiver draft.