Parity has struck the National Hockey League. The clincher is the Washington Capitals' miserable record against the scorned Norris Division -- four victories, five defeats and three ties.
Over the previous three seasons, Washington lost only seven of 45 games to the Norris quintet and three years ago dropped just one.
Those happy days are gone, as the Capitals learned over the weekend in St. Louis and Chicago. They fell to the Blues, 3-1, and to the Blackhawks, 5-4, to conclude a 1-4 road trip.
Leading the Patrick Division before that double disaster, the Capitals today find themselves closer to fifth-place Pittsburgh (four points) than to first-place Philadelphia (five).
An important divisional contest comes up tonight at home, where the surprising New Jersey Devils try to win for the first time in 19 Capital Centre visits since that franchise took a hike from Denver to the Meadowlands in 1982.
The Devils are tied with the Capitals for third place in the tightly packed Patrick and have a game in hand. In a six-team division with a 12-point spread from first to last, every game obviously is important.
Those two weekend games were most meaningful, too, and Washington let both get away. The Capitals outshot the Blues, 31-18, but failed to convert numerous scoring chances in the third period. They battled back from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie the Blackhawks, then fell to a dazzling goal by Denis Savard.
It made for a frustrating time for Coach Bryan Murray, who said, "Everybody kind of chuckles about the Norris Division, but we go into St. Louis and Chicago and their big line gets the goals that beat us. Things are so close in this league now that an individual can do it -- a big goal, a big play by the goaltender can mean the difference between winning and losing."
In the four defeats on the road trip, the Capitals ran into a lot of big plays by opposing goaltenders. Doug Dadswell of Calgary, Grant Fuhr of Edmonton and Rick Wamsley of St. Louis all earned postgame stars for outstanding performances. And in Chicago, where they do not select three stars, Darren Pang made some superb saves for the Blackhawks.
"They're making some big stops against us," Murray said. "That's a trademark when you play the Caps -- the other team's goalie will usually earn one of the stars. We're making them all look good.
"Rick Wamsley won the game for St. Louis, because we certainly had enough quality chances to win the hockey game. We've gotten that a few nights ourselves and we've had good, solid goaltending all season."
The problem for the Capitals is that with their grind-it-out, defensive style and frequent inability to capitalize on chances, the goaltender is in a pressure cooker, because any goal can mean the hockey game. Clint Malarchuk or Pete Peeters, unlike Fuhr or Calgary's Mike Vernon, cannot shrug off a bad goal on the assumption that the team will get half a dozen like it.
Malarchuk has appeared in 12 straight games, but Peeters will start against the Devils tonight. Although Peeters leads the NHL with a 2.47 goals-against mark, he has been injured four times and his 6-6-2 record mirrors the team's .500 status.
The Capitals obviously have some problems, one of them a lack of consistency. They look like world beaters at certain times on certain nights, novices at other times, often on the same nights.
"The league all year has been pretty even," said center Dale Hunter. "Even the division leaders like Montreal and Edmonton get beat by teams at the bottom of the standings. If you play a bad half period, just 10 minutes out of 60, it may be enough to cost you against a team that plays 60 minutes.
"A few years ago, there were three or four weak teams and you couldn't take a night off against them, but if you just played on talent, the good team would win. That's not true any more."
St. Louis Coach Jacques Martin, after the victory over Washington, said, "Every game is a big one now. There is so much parity in the league that it's difficult every night, no matter who you play. A lot of times the breaks determine the game."
In Los Angeles, the puck bounced the Capitals' way. In Edmonton, St. Louis and Chicago, it didn't. In Calgary, it did not matter, because the Flames owned the puck. Now the Capitals are home, 33 games from regular season's end, and the playoff fight is escalating.
"Everybody is still in the race and everybody could finish from first to sixth," Murray said. "Fortunately, we're a team that plays well within the division. We're basically designed with a style for this division and with 21 games left in the division we ought to do well. But you have to win the games; nobody is going to give them to you."