With a 7-4-1 record, the Washington Capitals are above the .500 mark after 12 games for the first time in their history.
Nevertheless, the team's last five games have produced some unhealthy trends in a stand-pat 2-2-1 record -- two 3-2 victories, two 3-2 defeats and a 3-3 tie. Both triumphs were over a Vancouver team that has the NHL's poorest record and in each case the Capitals failed to expand 3-0 and 2-0 advantages, prompting a suggestion that they lack a killer instinct.
Pleased with his defense but anxious to boost the rate of scoring, Coach Bryan Murray yesterday shuffled his lines one more time. This was no switch of left wings and fourth-liners; Murray was breaking up his two-man cores of Bengt Gustafsson and Dave Christian, Dale Hunter and Mike Gartner.
For a while at least, Hunter will center the team's most consistent wingers, Peter Sundstrom and Christian. Gustafsson will skate between Michal Pivonka and Gartner. Kelly Miller, Mike Ridley and Bob Gould will comprise the checking line, with Sundstrom elsewhere.
"I'm happy with our effort and our checking, but not the amount of scoring," Murray said. "Maybe we'll have a better mix on our top three lines if I try it this way.
"We have a situation where Gus and Dave Christian play well together, but we're still looking for someone on the left side. Maybe they'll be back together, but I want Mike and Gus to get a chance to play together."
During more than one practice in recent days, Murray has been heard to yell, "Shoot the puck." While spurred to make changes, he is convinced that following that simple instruction should be enough to increase the team's scoring output.
"Apparently, we're not satisfied to make the goaltender stop the puck," Murray said. "We have to make a finesse play or an extra pass to make it more exciting. We're just not finishing around the net the way we will have to if we expect to go far."
If certain players are reluctant to shoot the puck, however, captain Rod Langway does not see that as all bad. He remembers past seasons when some of the Capitals were too anxious to shoot, with a resulting deterioration in team play.
"Your morale breaks down when guys go for individual goals," Langway said. "That's when the team breaks down. I don't think it's justified to say that we lack a killer instinct.
"What I'm proud of is our only giving up a couple of goals a game. We had great opportunities last night, but their goaltender played extremely well. The main thing is we're still playing good defense.
"It used to be easy, when you got a 2-0 lead, to get a team down, 4-0, and put it away. But now the teams are closer in ability and refereeing becomes a factor. You can get a lot of penalties in a row and that makes it easier to get back in it.
"To me, coming back from being down 2-0, the way we were late in the game in Winnipeg, is more important than rolling up the score when we're ahead."
Hunter said, "We don't lack a killer instinct. We had some chances last night when it was 2-0 that if they'd gone in might have made it end up 6-2. That's the key: We have had the chances.
"The big thing is not to stop and retreat. That's when you get burnt. We're not trying to sit on a lead, the way Winnipeg might have done against us."
Miller said, "We pay a lot of attention to the defensive game, which is one reason why we're low scoring. If we open it up, then we open it up for them.
"It's a boring style, but what matters is the final score. We're winning most of the time, so I don't worry about it. If we were losing every game by one goal, then I'd be worrying. I'd certainly like to blow out teams, but you still get only two points."
Capitals Notes: Goaltender Pete Peeters used his new white pads during practice. "It's kind of psychological," he said. "Supposedly, if a guy shoots quickly, he can't distinguish between the pads and the net."
Oilers 7, Rangers 2: Wayne Gretzky scored three goals and increased his NHL career assist total to 1,000 in leading the victory in Edmonton. His five points increased his career totals to 553 goals and 1,576 points.
Only 15,936 showed up, the second smallest Edmonton crowd since the Coliseum was expanded for the 1981-82 season. The Oilers have not had a sellout this season.
Maple Leafs 7, Jets 3: In Toronto, Russ Courtnall and Wendel Clark each scored two goals and Ed Olczyk had a goal and four assists to enable the Maple Leafs to win their fourth straight. They beat Pokey Reddick on six of 13 shots in the first 30 minutes.
Linesman Ryan Bozak's cheekbone was broken by a puck in the first period. He will be out five weeks.
North Stars 7, Red Wings 4: In Bloomington, Minn., Brian Lawton's goal with 2:05 to go broke a 4-4 tie. The North Stars got two empty-net goals in the last 30 seconds by Dave Gagner and Dino Ciccarelli.
It was Minnesota's first victory over Norris Division rival Detroit since Jan. 5, 1986.
Sabres 5, Kings 4: Dave Andreychuk scored with 57 seconds to play to win the game in Inglewood, Calif. He took a pass from John Tucker and beat goalie Glenn Healy on a 10-foot wrist shot.
Buffalo's Adam Creighton broke a 3-3 tie with a 20-foot slap shot at 6:42 of the third period.
Bruins 2, Whalers 2: Brent Peterson scored at 10:40 of the third period in Hartford to give the Whalers a tie and extend their unbeaten streak to seven.
Peterson, known primarily for his defensive play, received a pass from Joel Quenneville, beat two defenders and put a short shot past goalie Reggie Lemelin for the equalizer.
Boston's Cam Neely nearly decided the game in overtime, but his shot hit the post with about two minutes to go.
Canadiens 4, Blackhawks 4: In Chicago, Doug Wilson scored a shorthanded goal with less than two minutes remaining in the third period to give the Blackhawks a tie.
His goal, his sixth of the year, came after the Canadiens failed to clear the puck with 10 seconds left on a power play advantage.