Here's a non-news item: The Washington Capitals have the third-best record in the NHL this season—24-10-4 as of Sunday—which leaves them trailing only Edmonton and Philadelphia in the mythical overall standings. More non-news: That record doesn't mean Sweet Fanny Adams, not even to the Capitals, who finished in precisely that position last year, only to be ousted in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the ninth-place New York Islanders. The Caps have already proved that they can win big in the regular season (101 points in each of the last two years) and that their work ethic and disciplined defensive style (they have allowed the fewest goals-against in the league over the last three seasons) breed success over 80 games. They've even proved that they can beat the best, twice this season drubbing the Oilers by 5-2 scores. What the Caps haven't proved—and it will be newsworthy when they do, Senator—is that they can win in springtime at the NHL's annual no-invitation-necessary, come-one-come-all postseason ball, otherwise known as the 16-team playoffs. "In the playoffs you need enough talent to have a chance, a little luck, plus the big saves," says Capitals coach Bryan Murray. "Our goaltenders were not giving us the big stops. If we'd had a few last year, there's no question we would have won."
Last year. Oh, the pity of it. Leading the Islanders—who have eliminated the Caps three seasons running now—two games to none in the best-of-five first round, the Caps proceeded to lose the final three games 2-1, 6-4 and 2-1. The lowlight came in Game 4 when they blew a 4-2 third-period lead as goalie Al Jensen allowed a couple of kitchen sinks to slip through. "After that I made up my mind we were going to trade a goaltender," says Caps general manager David Poile, "if only to remove the psychological crutch of our players thinking that we couldn't win with what we had."
Poile waited until Nov. 14, exchanging Pat Riggin, the doughboy-tummied veteran who had a 2-5 record in the playoffs, one-for-one for Boston's Pete Peeters, a goaltender who has a history of playing best in his first season with a team and then sliding progressively downhill. What Peeters gives the Caps is big-game experience: He has played in 41 playoff games with Philadelphia and Boston (20 wins, 20 losses), one Stanley Cup final (1980) and was the winning goalie in Team Canada's 3-2 OT victory over the Soviet Union in the 1984 Canada Cup—probably the single most pressure-packed NHL game of the decade. So far with Washington, Peeters is 6-3-1 with a 3.27 goals-against average and seems to be back on form after an off year last season with the Bruins. Just as significant, since Riggin's departure Jensen has been the hottest goalie in the NHL, going 10-1-1. "Jensen and Riggin competed," says Murray. "Peeters thinks of Jensen more as a partner. They talk about goaltending all the time. He's been a very good influence on Al."
So the Caps seem to be stronger in goal, fragile though that strength may be. The way this team plays defense—and veteran rearguards Rod Langway and Scott Stevens are still the heart of the club—the goaltenders are called upon to make only half a dozen key stops most nights.
January 13, 1986
Paired with Stevens and Langway on the blue line are Larry Murphy, who already has a dozen goals this year, and 19-year-old rookie Kevin Hatcher. The 6'4" Hatcher, who is out of Detroit, used to do some boxing at the Kronk Rec Center, where Tommy Hearns trained, and won a local tournament as a 13-year-old.
When the Caps' designated hitter, Dwight Schofield—another newcomer, brought on board for the express purpose of keeping Stevens from having to fight Philly goon Dave Brown (ain't hockey grand?)—heard of Hatcher's pugilistic skills, Schofield challenged him to some on-ice sparring after a recent road-trip practice. Believe it or not, Schofield actually travels with two pairs of boxing gloves. "I didn't really want to do it," recalls the soft-spoken Hatcher. As his teammates roared in approval, Hatcher quickly decked the 6'3", 195-pound Schofield with a right. "I took him too lightly," said an embarrassed Schofield, who was up at the count of seven. "Experienced veteran...young kid with no book on him...happens all the time."
Which brings us to the Capitals' offense. Say what you will about non-clutch goaltending, when a team scrapes together only 12 goals in five playoff games, as the Caps did last year, it is asking for trouble. "Our philosophy has always been to look after our own end first," says Murray. "But you can do that all night, and if you don't have that one guy to put the puck in the net, it frustrates you."
The Capitals actually were banking on that one guy to be two guys—linemates Bobby Carpenter and Mike Gartner, both of whom were 50-goal scorers last season. But as innumerable clubs have discovered, a team cannot succeed in the playoffs with only one effective scoring line. The Islanders held Carpenter to just one goal—Gartner had four—and no one else picked up the slack.
This year the Capitals' attack is more balanced. Dave Christian, who played erratically last season as he underwent a divorce, has already scored 23 goals—only three fewer than his total for all of 1984-85. Thirteen of Christian's goals have come on the power play, an area in which Washington was a woeful 4 for 28 (14.3%) in the '85 playoffs.
Most surprising of all, though, has been the emergence of the Alan Ha-worth-Craig Laughlin-Greg Adams line as the Capitals' most effective unit. With Carpenter having an off year until now (only nine goals in 38 games), Haworth, moved to center this season from left wing, currently trails only Gartner and Christian in scoring, with 41 points, including 19 goals. Meanwhile, Laughlin and Adams are proving to be exactly the type of big, hard-working wingers that playoff teams rely on, particularly in the bruising Patrick Division.
To bolster the attack further, Poile traded for Swedish left wing Jorgen Pettersson, who scored 161 goals in five years with St. Louis but was a bust this season for Hartford. To get Pettersson, Poile gave up one of the best defensive forwards in the game, 30-year-old Doug Jarvis. "It was a hard deal to make because it was a departure from Caps-style hockey, which is defense first," says Poile. "But we're trying to become a better-rounded club. Maybe we had too many defensive players."
The good news is that Washington keeps on winning with strong goaltending and without Carpenter scoring. The bad news is that April is still three months away.