Check out the ceiling at Philadelphia's Spectrum. There are banners everywhere—two for Stanley Cup championships, eight for divisional titles, five for conference championships, three for regular-season supremacy. Now check the ceiling in the Capital Centre. Talk about minimalism.... "Nothing up there," says Caps defenseman Scott Stevens, pointing toward the building's rafters. "It's depressing."
Nobody has called for a needle and thread quite yet, but Washington's uncharacteristically wild 6-5 victory over the Flyers on Sunday in Landover, Md. put the Capitals squarely in control of their own destiny in the Patrick Division. With that win, the Caps moved to within one point of the first-place Flyers, and they also had a game in hand.
More important, the Caps may have purged at least a few of their demons from failures past. Can't win the big one. Can't beat the Flyers—2-9-1 in the past two seasons. Doomed in the playoffs. A pretender forevermore. Finally, for perhaps the first time in the history of the 12-year-old franchise, Washington won a game it had to win. "This is the closest we've ever come," says center Bob Carpenter. "It's ours if we want it. And we do want it."
Only four weeks earlier the Capitals had all but conceded the divisional title to the Flyers. When they lost 3-1 in Philadelphia on Feb. 22, the Caps fell 11 points behind the Flyers and had only 22 games to play. "I wrote first place off," says Washington coach Bryan Murray. "I said, 'Let's begin preparing for the playoffs now.' We shortened up to four defensemen and three lines because that's how it is in the playoffs."
The Caps lost their next game 4-1 to Buffalo, but then won eight straight, allowing only 14 goals over that span. Meanwhile, the Flyers dropped five of seven games—shaky goaltending was the prime reason—and the Caps slipped into first place for a few hours on March 9 before the Flyers beat the Rangers in New York. "A wake-up call? Not really, but we weren't comfortable in second place, not even for that short a time," said Flyers left wing Dave Poulin. "I don't think we became complacent by any stretch of the imagination. We just didn't play very well."
On March 10, the eve of the NHL's trade deadline, both teams made moves to strengthen themselves for the stretch run and the playoffs. Mindful that the standard Philadelphia game plan against the Caps called for Flyer hit men Dave Brown and Rick Tocchet, along with the feisty Sutter twins, Ron and Rich, to cheap-shot any and all Washington skaters at all times, Caps general manager David Poile disposed of pacifist defensemen Peter Andersson and Darren Veitch and acquired a pair of tough guys, Greg Smith and John Barrett, from Detroit. And the Flyers, who have had doubts about their goaltending since the death of Pelle Lindbergh last November, obtained veteran Glenn (Chico) Resch from New Jersey to help out Bob Froese.
The Patrick Division championship offers many rewards. Home-ice advantage in the divisional playoffs, for one. How important is that to the Caps? Very. They have scored just one goal in three losses at the Spectrum this season. "There aren't many penalties called during our games in Philadelphia," says Murray. "So it's a little different game in their building." Also, the winner of the Washington-Philadelphia battle gets to play either Pittsburgh or the New York Rangers in the best-of-five first round, while the loser must meet the New York Islanders. The Islanders are 4-2 against the Flyers this season, and they have eliminated Washington from the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
All of which made Sunday's game something special. "This was playoff hockey," Murray said afterward. "Not the score necessarily, but the intensity, the emotion."
It was an aberration, too. In five previous meetings this season, the NHL's top two defensive teams (Philadelphia has allowed 228 goals, Washington 245) had scored a combined total of only 23 goals. On Sunday, the dam broke. Neither starting goaltender survived the deluge. Washington's Pete Peeters aggravated a strained groin muscle and was removed after two periods—and four goals on 12 shots. Al Jensen replaced him and played well, giving up a goal on the first shot he faced but stopping 10 others. Philadelphia's Froese was yanked 4:41 into the second period—after surrendering four goals on 15 shots. Resch came on and played spectacularly in stretches, but a weak short-side backhander by Bob Gould bounced off the post and caromed off Resch's leg into the net for the game-winning goal after the Flyers had rallied from two goals down to a 5-5 tie.
"If I were the Flyers, I'd have to be worried about my team's goaltending," said Carpenter, a 53-goal scorer last season who has emerged from a season-long slump with five goals in his last seven games. "One of the reasons he [Froese] has such good numbers is that he doesn't get that many shots on him. But when he does...."
When asked how he felt about his goaltending against the Caps, Flyers coach Mike Keenan said, "Normally, those goalies stop those shots." Froese was harsher in his self-assessment of Sunday's performance: "If I play my normal game, we win."
The Caps didn't win any style points, but two points in the standings were quite enough. The starting lineups were ominous: Philly featured Brown and His Fists of Renown. On the undercard for the Flyers were center Peter Zezel and defenseman Dave Richter, who may be the toughest guy in the league. The Caps countered with noted peacekeepers Dwight Schofield, Lou Franceschetti, Barrett and Smith. The result? For all of 15 seconds the would-be combatants snarled at each other, and then nothing happened. "Both teams have gotten to the point where we know we can play it tough, but to win in the playoffs you've got to play the game," said Murray. "Intimidation may be a factor on some nights, but come the playoffs, nobody's afraid. Then it just comes down to playing."
As hockey games go, this was family entertainment, richly appreciated by the crowd of 18,130, a Caps team-record 10th sellout for one season. Even those merry mayhem-makers from Viking, Alberta—the Sutter twins—showed more finesse than ferocity. With the Caps trapped deep in the offensive zone, Rich led a three-on-two, dropped the puck to Tocchet, who slipped it to Ron, who whipped it past Peeters at 1:38. Anderson to Gretzky to Kurd? It was nearly that pretty.
In past Flyers-Caps games, that goal might have been enough. But this time around, the players were saving their checking for the bank. Two minutes later, at 3:22, Carpenter ripped a slap shot from 45 feet that skimmed off defenseman Brad Marsh's shin guard and over Froese's glove for his 27th goal of the year. "It was near the end of the shift and I was tired. But instead of just dumping it in—I knew Froese had trouble with high shots—so I let it go," Carpenter said. Good idea.
Mike Gartner, a splendid right wing, was largely responsible for the Caps' go-ahead goal at 4:40. He tried to split the defense, but was tied up by Mark Howe and Richter. However, the puck sprung loose, and Gaetan Duchesne slipped a backhander through Froese's legs. In 78 seconds the Caps had scored twice as many goals as they had produced in three games at Philadelphia.
Tim Kerr, Philly's immovable object, tied the score at 2-2 with his 51st goal, an NHL-record 32nd power play goal, taking a pass from Swede Pelle Eklund and ricocheting it in off the far post. "I was all over him, and he still got a piece of it," said Caps defenseman Rod Langway. "It was a lucky goal, really. There were a lot of goals like that, bouncy goals, strange." There was nothing strange about Kerr's 52nd, which put Philadelphia ahead 3-2 at 15:48. With Peeters peeking around the left post, Kerr took a behind-the-net pass from Brian Propp and blasted it into the open side.
The goals kept coming in the second period, too. Scott Stevens's was easily the ugliest, the Caps' young defenseman bulling his way from behind the Flyers' net and stuffing the puck under Froese for a 3-3 tie. "I saw it rolling on his glove, so I kept whacking at it," he said. "Finally I just pushed the pad in the net, too. Pretty, wasn't it?"
The next one was. Dave Christian, the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold medalist who is having a career season (38-38-76), took a pass from Bengt Gustafsson and beat Froese high on the stick side for a 4-3 Caps lead. "That was the goal that upset me," said Froese. "I should have stood up and challenged him." Keenan wasn't real pleased, either. Exit Froese, enter Resch.
At 11:30 the Capitals went up 5-3, Craig Laughlin scoring on a power play that had been 2 for 22 against the Flyers. But 11 seconds later, before the crowd was back in its seats, Ilkka Sinisalo scored to cut the Caps' lead to 5-4.
Jensen had all of one minute and 37 seconds in the third period to understand why puck-stopping can be a lousy way to make a living. Called on to protect that 5-4 lead, Jensen "reacted a little slowly" on a Brian Propp backhander—and it was 5-5. But then, Resch didn't react at all on Gould's game winner at 2:54. "I hate backhanders," he said.
Now all Washington has to do to 1) finish first, 2) avoid the Islanders in Round 1, and 3) assure themselves of the home-ice advantage is to keep winning, no small feat for a team with the Caps' history of late-season swoons. But they finally won a big game Sunday. One demon down, one to go. Maybe that ceiling won't be so bare come next season.