LANDOVER -- This was one of those four-point games. You know the kind. The New Jersey Devils were on the road, where they rarely win, while the Washington Capitals were at home, where they're supposed to win. Time to make hay and close ground in the interesting duel for the last playoff spot in the Patrick Division.
For the first period or so, Armageddon went unnoticed. Obviously, the word didn't filter down to the troops this was a big/huge/crucial contest.
"We started out watching the Kings play out there," said Caps coach Terry Murray, after Los Angeles had taken a 2-0 first-period lead. Murray nearly flew into the locker room for a few heated words with his lads.
"You can't give the talented players they have the time or space to operate like we've been giving," the coach reminded.
"Yeah, they weren't forechecking us at all in the first period," noted Kings defenseman Larry Robinson.
The words hit home. Suddenly, the Ice Capades turned into tough, hard hockey.
But this was the Kings, recall, Wayne Gretzky and cohorts, winners of seven straight games and having a brilliant season atop the Smythe Division. The way back would be tough.
A goal by Mike Ridley early in the second period cut Washington's deficit in half. But the margin was back to two a few minutes later when The Great One drew his third main assist on L.A.'s third goal.
There are assists in hockey, guys who happen to touch a puck that eventually ends up in the goal, and then there are Gretzky assists. Last night's classic was a cross-ice pass on the swinging stick of Tomas Sandstrom as Wayne was being enveloped by Rod Langway. Mere mortals fantasize about such plays.
"We let them back in the game with the power-play goal [making it 2-1] and [Michal] Pivonka made a nice play to make it 3-2," said Gretzky. "But we had four good chances to make it 4-2 and that might have done it."
Instead, just after the mid-point of the third period, Dimitri Khristich gave the Caps a 3-3 tie, which held up to the end and through overtime. More on the Soviet player's goal after some situation updating.
Up on Long Island, New Jersey was leading the Islanders in the third period when Washington still trailed. It appeared the Caps would not only fail to gain on the Devils, but would fall further behind in the bid for the fourth and last playoff spot.
A check of L.A.'s record while leading after two periods (33-1-3) cast further gloom on the picture. It brightened considerably as the Caps continued to dictate the play and fire shots on Dan Berthiaume before Khristich moved front and center.
"Ridley got me the pass," said Dimitri, trying to sound like announcer Al ("Do You Believe in Miracles?") Michaels through an interpreter. "The puck was in my skates and while I was trying to get control, Dino [Ciccarelli] was going to the far post. I was hoping to get the puck to him, but it was hopping and soon I did not have enough time. So I shot [and scored]."
Good grief, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what actually happens on a play. Such candidness might eventually catch on.
"We had our chances in the end [overtime]," said Gretzky, "especially when I had that two-on-one [goalie Mike Liut deflected his high, hard shot]. But you cannot be upset after a game like this. We didn't play poorly by any means. But we have to be mentally tougher now because all the games mean so much."
Advice the Caps would do well to heed and which they did on this occasion, climbing back from oblivion. Their game was over for about 15 minutes when someone filled in the score from the Nassau Coliseum on the locker room blackboard: "Islanders 4, Devils 3." A few players looked and smiled. They had gained a point and closed to within three of New Jersey.
"We're not watching the scoreboard," Murray said, as if he expected listeners to believe it. "We've got to stay focused on our game and get the two points. Tonight, we only got the one, but the tie and two strong periods send us off on the road [to Winnipeg and Edmonton] in pretty good shape."
Between them, the Caps and Devils have 25 games remaining, meaning the playoff picture will change at least that many times before it's all over the last day of the month.