Call last Saturday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Hartford Whalers an upset. In fact, call it a shocker. No, not because the Caps, who trailed 2-0 more than 19 minutes into the second period, stormed back to win 3-2 on a goal by Todd Krygier with 24.9 seconds left in the game. The real surprise of the evening in the Hartford Civic Center was that Washington scored only three goals.
Yes, the Capitals. The traditionally plodding, low-scoring, defense-minded Caps have been on a goal-scoring orgy since the beginning of the season. As if, after all those years, they finally discovered what that net down at the other end of the ice is for. As if, well, as if they were a different team. Coming into the game in Hartford, Washington had scored five or more goals in 15 of its 21 games and was swaggering along with a 5.1-goals-per-game average. The Capitals' 107 goals were 15 more than any other NHL team and 40 more than Washington scored in the same number of games last season. The play-it-safe, stay-at-home, wait-for-the-other-guys-to-make-a-mistake Caps have taken to the ice with virtually the same personnel they had last season—and with what appears to be a whole different philosophy.
Washington's newfound firepower has been responsible for the fastest start in the 17-year history of the franchise: The team had a 17-5-0 record after the Saturday victory in Hartford. The Caps' 34 points were tops in the NHL even though they had played fewer games than any other division leader.
Along the way to this gaudy record, Washington has had some impressive wins. On Oct. 29, in Pittsburgh, the Capitals blew out the defending Stanley Cup-champion Penguins 8-0. Seventeen days later, at home in the Capital Centre, they beat Pittsburgh again, 6-2. Those victories were a decided turnabout from last season's playoffs, in which Washington got only three goals in its final three games against the Penguins in the Patrick Division finals and lost the series four games to one.
"The guys on this team have a lot of hockey skills," says right wing Dino Ciccarelli, one of the Caps' few proven goal scorers. "But now they're learning they can score goals."
"Everybody's taking on some responsibility," says Terry Murray, 41, who is in his second full season as the Cap coach. Murray, a former Washington player, spent six seasons as an assistant to his brother Bryan, whom he replaced after Bryan was fired in 1990. Though their sibling rivalry heated up a bit when Bryan, now the general manager and coach of the Detroit Red Wings, guided the Wings to a 5-4 victory over the Caps on Nov. 8, Terry is the Murray who's an early candidate for Coach of the Year.
Washington's improvement did not happen overnight. Despite finishing the 1990-91 regular season just one game above .500, the Capitals had begun to lay the groundwork for this season's emergence. At the heart of the new Caps are two East European scorers, Peter Bondra and Dimitri Khristich. As of Sunday they were tied for the team lead in goals with 14 each. Last season Kevin Hatcher—a defenseman, no less—tied for the team lead with 24 over the 80-game schedule. Bondra, a 23-year-old Russian-born Czech in his second season with the Caps, and Khristich, a 22-year-old native of Kiev who joined Washington on Dec. 11 of last year, represent the Capitals' commitment to speed and natural goal-scoring ability. Add Michal Pivonka, a Czech who's in his sixth season in Washington and who is probably the Caps' quickest skater, and Murray has one of the most dangerous lines in the league. The old Capitals were content to dump the puck in and work the corners or to position Ciccarelli near the crease and try to get the puck to him. Now, says Murray, the idea is to get everyone moving and to use short, crisp passes to set up the attack.
Khristich, a 6'2", 190-pound center with slicked-back blond hair and cars that stick out like jug handles, has pleased Murray as much as anyone on the team. While not as fluid on the ice as, say, Pivonka, he has excellent range and puck-handling skills, and he is adjusting well to the NHL. "I am more comfortable this year," says Khristich, whose 24 points through Sunday were only three fewer than he scored in the 40 games he played last season. "I tell everybody we're going to make him a star," says defenseman Al Iafrate. "He's going to be around."
If so, a big reason will be the help Khristich is getting from behind. While Hatcher's scoring prowess has been eclipsed by the front-liners', with his five goals and 11 assists through Sunday he was still close to his pace of last year, when he led the Capitals with 74 points. And he is not alone in giving Washington scoring punch from the back line. Iafrate, 6'3" and 220 pounds, was the first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1984. He tied the Leafs' record for most goals by a defenseman, with 22 in '87-88. At the 1990 Ail-Star skills competition, Iafrate won both the hardest-shooter and the skating contests. Cap general manager David Poile traded for him last January. Another defenseman, Calle Johansson, has been given more ice time in his fourth season with Washington, and he is responding. As of Sunday, Johansson had seven goals and 14 assists.
Despite such offensive talent, the Cap back-liners are under no pressure to push forward, thanks to the speed and skill the Capitals have up front. Indeed, though Washington may now be goal-happy, it has hardly abandoned the idea of tough defense. Through 22 games the Capitals had given up 68 goals, five fewer than they had surrendered at the same point last season. "We have to score goals, but we can't let go of the other things we did right," says forward Dave Tippett, an eight-year veteran of the NHL. "The really good teams do both."
Which means that for now, at least, the Capitals are a really good team.
"I don't know exactly what it is," says Khristich. "There is no real difference from last year, but you look and you see how it goes." He has a broad smile on his face. "We've scored some goals."
Murray, with his neatly combed silver hair and his unruffled air, allows himself a smile. "Everybody likes to score," he says. "That's what brings the attention."
It is also, as Murray and the Capitals are learning, what brings success.