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...."