When Mike Gartner scored seven goals in the Washington Capitals' first four games, it appeared he was on his way to a special season.
Since then, Gartner has played seven games without registering a point. The turnabout is most unwelcome for a defense-oriented team that has won only one of its last four games while scoring a measly 10 goals. Gartner and the Capitals hope it ends tonight, when the Vancouver Canucks visit Capital Centre at 7:35.
Until last season, Gartner was the steadiest player in the history of the franchise. While scoring 35 or more goals every season since he entered the NHL in 1979-80, Gartner never had gone more than eight games without a goal.
Last season he raised that shutout figure to 10 and over one stretch of 19 games had only one goal. Passing the halfway point of the season with just 10, he got hot in mid-January and finished with 41.
With the carryover from the late-season streak, plus a superb performance in helping his native Canada capture the Canada Cup, Gartner was looking forward to a banner season. Then, after two goals in the opener at Boston, a hat trick two nights later against Chicago and singles against Buffalo and Hartford, Gartner has found himself reliving last fall.
"I was never a streak player until last year and I really don't see any particular reason for this," Gartner said. "I'm still getting a lot of chances, but they're not going in the way they were before, when everything seemed to be going my way.
"I got seven goals in four games, but there wasn't a lot of hoopla then and there's not a lot of concern now. I just don't want it to go on."
The recently completed road trip highlighted Gartner's problem. He had some excellent scoring chances, but was foiled by the bounce of the puck.
In Vancouver, goaltender Kirk McLean made an excellent stick save on Gartner's shorthanded breakaway with Washington nursing a 3-2 lead.
In Winnipeg, Pokey Reddick made three superb saves on Gartner in the first 24 minutes, with the game scoreless. The third came on another shorthanded break, with the puck seemingly headed for the upper right corner. When Reddick gloved it, the crowd of 11,099 responded with a standing ovation.
"I shot it into his glove," Gartner said. "The puck was in front of me and I got off a chip shot. He opened his glove and caught it, maybe a lot easier than it looked to the fans."
In Minnesota, the Capitals had a 1-0 lead when Gartner took a pass from Lou Franceschetti at the finish of a two-on-one. Goalie Don Beaupre dove to his left and blocked the shot. Again, Gartner insisted it wasn't that hard.
"The puck started to roll and when I took it and shot, I didn't get it up high enough," Gartner said.
Gartner discounts a slight concussion that put him out early in the first period at Philadelphia Oct. 22. He said he still is getting plenty of chances -- his 50 shots rank second in the NHL to Mario Lemieux's 61 -- and that is the key.
Another key may be whether officials give Gartner the respect he and his coach feel is due him. In Minnesota, Gartner seemed to be pulled down with impunity and on one occasion he was tackled without a call.
"I don't see a big difference between last year and this year," Gartner said. "I can't criticize the refs, so I'll just follow the adage that if you have nothing good to say, don't say anything.
"They've made it clear that they don't want comment. I'll just accept that. But the way the game is going, I may come into camp at 205 pounds next year and be a different kind of player."
Coach Bryan Murray, also cautious with his comments, said, "People are really paying special attention to Mike. He puts up with more tripping and pulling than anybody in the league. If you put your stick on any other top guy in the league and he goes down, you'll generally get a penalty call.
"I thought Winnipeg and Minnesota took a lot away from Mike with that kind of tactic. But he's working hard and playing hard and he's the kind of guy that when he gets it going, he really gets it going."