Television brought an end to the reign of the matinee idol. The Washington Capitals scheduled a revival this weekend that was to have featured three of hockey's most exciting players, but Mario Lemieux now looms as the lone participant.
Lemieux, second-best center in the world, comes to soldout Capital Centre this afternoon with the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, he will not be accompanied by his cohort in offensive mischief, defenseman Paul Coffey, who is hobbled by a small tear in the cartilage of his right knee.
Saturday afternoon, the Stanley Cup-champion Edmonton Oilers will help entertain another sellout audience and it appears they will have a prominent absentee. Center Wayne Gretzky, who has missed only eight games in 8 1/2 NHL seasons, twisted his right knee Wednesday night and is considered unlikely to face the Capitals.
Gretzky was carried into the boards by two Philadelphia players after he scored his 573rd career goal in the Oilers' 6-0 embarrassment of the Flyers. The knee was bothering him yesterday and his is not the kind of talent that is placed at risk.
Actually, the Capitals have responded well in the past to the challenge presented by Gretzky, Lemieux and Coffey.
Washington has beaten Edmonton in six of their last seven meetings, including a 4-2 decision here Dec. 1. In his last three games against the Capitals, Gretzky has been held scoreless while managing only two shots on goal.
Although Pittsburgh took the season series last year, 4-3, and has earned two victories and a tie in three games this season, the Capitals have shackled Lemieux pretty well, too. He has 18 points in 19 games against Washington, far below the 1.7 per game he has averaged in 3 1/2 NHL campaigns.
Still, nobody who saw it will forget the sight of rookie penalty killer Lemieux three years back protecting the puck with his 6-foot-5 frame for more than 30 seconds while one Capital after another tried to knock it loose.
The man who has troubled Lemieux the most of anyone in the NHL is Bob Gould, the center on the Capitals' checking line. Besides doing an outstanding job of keeping the puck away from Lemieux, Gould scored a one-punch knockout of the Pittsburgh superstar a year ago.
Gould also shadowed Gretzky into frustration last season, but it was the combination of Bengt Gustafsson and Dale Hunter that neutralized Gretzky in December. Washington Coach Bryan Murray adds that it really wasn't that simple.
"They've done a big, big job, but we'd be kidding ourselves to say it's all those guys," Murray said. "A lot of it is the defense we play against them. Our defensive corps has been very responsible with Lemieux or Gretzky on the ice."
Murray thrives on the challenges presented by the game's top talent, but with the Capitals struggling to reach and top the .500 mark this weekend, he would not be unhappy if he were deprived of a duel with Gretzky.
"That would be all right. I wouldn't mind if he took the day off," Murray said.
Coffey's latest injury, the result of a collision with a referee, has raised once more the speculation that the Penguins received damaged goods in the big November trade that brought Coffey from Edmonton.
Coffey missed three games earlier with a bruised knee and thigh and he was plagued by back problems during his last two years at Edmonton. With Coffey in the lineup, the Penguins have rolled up a 7-2-1 record. Without him, they are a sub-.500 team and an inordinate amount of pressure descends on Lemieux.
Lemieux has 31 goals and 41 assists in 34 games, having missed three earlier with a sore shoulder after the Islanders' Alan Kerr blasted him into the boards. Despite that remarkable scoring pace, he already has fallen 14 points behind Gretzky.
Coffey holds NHL season records for goals (48) by a defenseman and, despite his lengthy holdout and physical problems, has 16 points in 10 games with Pittsburgh.
Gretzky's numbers boggle the mind. He has recorded 573 goals and 1,033 assists in 670 NHL games. His 30th goal of the season Wednesday tied Mike Bossy for fifth on the all-time list. His 1,606 points trail only Gordie Howe (1,850) and Marcel Dionne (1,723). He is just 16 assists from matching Howe's all-time mark of 1,049 and has been voted the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in all eight of his NHL seasons.