LANDOVER -- In no other sport do the wages of war change as rapidly and as dramatically as in hockey.
All enthused about their recent play, which saw them run off five victories, four on the road, the Washington Capitals perhaps envisioned themselves taking a dominant position in the Patrick Division as the weekend got under way.
The thing is they played well against Buffalo Saturday and
Boston last night in the Black Hole on the D.C. Beltway. But, as coach Terry Murray groaned after last night's 5-3 bow to the Bruins, "We gave back all the good work we did on the road."
The first guy to ever balance on blades said pick up a point on the road and make hay in front of the home faithful. The Caps could have salvaged at least an OK weekend if they could have maintained the pressure after tying the Bruins at 3-3 midway in the second period.
But a horrendously sloppy attempt to clear a puck in the goal mouth gave Boston the lead and, as the coach usually ends up saying, "We weren't able to generate the opportunity to give us the big [winning] goal."
It was one of those rare 7 p.m. games and, it seemed, goalie Mike Liut didn't show up until the regular starting time of 7:35. It made no difference, goals by Joel Quenneville and Steve Leach covering Chris Nilan's tally by the visitors on their very first shot.
A questionable call -- they have them once in a while in hockey -- put Boston on the power play early in the second period and once-upon-a-time Cap Bobby Carpenter squared it. No sooner had the gnashing of teeth subsided when another former hand, Dave Christian, gave the Bruins the lead.
A goal that shouldn't be is called a soft goal. This one squished. No matter, John Druce tied it as he outhustled a Boston defender for the puck and swooped in for his 10th goal and 20th point in 19 games. This time last year, Druce was still a couple of weeks away from being called to the big club from Baltimore.
For the next 12 minutes, the Caps were in control, Reggie Lemelin being required to make some nifty saves in the Bruins' net. Finally, Boston had an opportunity and, wham, it converted.
Liut had made a nice save, stopping a bullet struck by Lyndon Byers. In doing so, he slid out of the picture, leaving the puck laying motionless, ready to be struck, about a foot from the goal line.
"We had two guys there ready to clear," noted the coach. It was Dave Tippett who was closest and he took a swing at it. Remember the climactic pitch in "Casey at the Bat?" He fanned and Craig Janney reached in and nudged the rubber disc ahead.
"We jumped on our chances and that's what you have to do," said Christian, reviewing his, Carpenter's and Janney's tallies.
"After that, we couldn't seem to get a bounce," said Murray. "We had too many turnovers just like against Buffalo [a 4-2 loss] and they have the defensemen in [Ray] Bourque, [Glen] Wesley and [Garry] Galley who can step up and make you pay."
The Caps have been going a while now with not a whole lot of offense with Dino Ciccarelli (broken thumb) and Peter Zezel (sprained ankle) sidelined. They've been able to patch because the defense has been outstanding, allowing just seven goals during the five-game streak.
"But anytime you lose a big defenseman, like we did last [Saturday] night with Kevin Hatcher going out [knee injury], it becomes very difficult because the back line is where you start building your team," said Murray.
Making matters a little bit worse is it won't be known until later today how much time Hatcher is apt to miss. And the other half of the goalie combination Caps general manager David Poile says is the club's best ever, Don Beaupre, is still only day-to-day with his groin pull.
Washington is in Toronto Wednesday and the Leafs are looking like a team that might not win 10 games this season. That's a break and buys time until the powerful Chicago Blackhawks visit the Capital Centre Friday.
Thinking back over the defeats to the Adams Division leaders Boston and Buffalo, Murray couldn't help but think of what might have been "because the hard work and intensity were there in both games. Losing two big games like that at home is a shame."
Battles will be won and lost until next March 31. It being the Patrick Division, the numbers figure to be pretty even. The bottom line is the playoffs, otherwise known as the war.