In Caps' parity-filled Patrick Division, the 'real' season has yet to begin

Phil Jackman

April 01, 1991|By Phil Jackman

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Capitals seemed out of it as far as postseason play was concerned, languishing in fifth place six points out of fourth. They just missed grabbing second and gaining home-ice advantage as the NHL regular season wrapped up last night.

Pittsburgh blew out of the playoffs last year, losing out to the New York Islanders on the last day. The Penguins jumped from fifth to the Patrick Division regular-season title this time around.

Only once in the past five years has the schedule champion of the Patrick made it out of division to meet the Adams Division standard-bearer for the Wales Conference title.

For the second straight year, the Philadelphia Flyers are being sent home despite racking up more points than three playoff participants. Three seasons ago, only nine of 21 teams had a better record than the Rangers, but the Broadway Blues were told their presence no longer was required after 80 games.

The Caps finished second five years in a row in the Patrick and held their own in the playoffs, making the division final three times. First time they finished first, zap, blind-sided out of the chase for the Stanley Cup in the first round.

So what's the point of all this?

Nothing, really, just confirmation of the fact that if you want to talk parity, forget Pete Rozelle's formula for absolute equality in the NFL and make a case study of the Patrick Division.

When postseason play is referred to as a whole new season, in hockey it's the unvarnished truth. In the Patrick Division, from year to year, what happens from October through March rarely has bearing on anything that is about to follow.

Take the end result of the 1987-88 regular campaign and it's almost the direct opposite of this season's final tally, Pittsburgh and the Rangers going from the outhouse to the penthouse with the Islanders and Flyers reversing the trip.

While it's true the Caps struggled all season and didn't move past the .500 mark for good until the 75th game, most of their problems occurred against the teams they got to look at every two months or so.

Possessed of the best record in the Patrick (20-12-3), Washington was a combined 17-24-4 against the outlanders from the Adams, Norris and Smythe divisions. This would suggest that come Wednesday night and the start of their division semifinal test against the Rangers in New York, the Caps will be on familiar and comfortable ground.

Add to this Washington brushing the Rangers aside easily in last year's division final, and the unrest apparent in New York's locker room presently, and the Caps would appear to have things going in their favor. They've had lofty expectations come crashing down around their ears before, however.

Last night, for instance, following a scoreless first period, coach Terry Murray expected his team to come out and storm the Buffalo goal. The Sabres outshot the Caps, 23-7, in the period on the way to a 5-2 cakewalk.

A victory coupled with a Rangers' loss to Pittsburgh would have gained Washington second place and home-ice advantage. But no way the Penguins were going to do anybody any favors considering they left their arsenal (Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey and Mark Recchi) at home.

Meantime, Rangers coach Roger Neilson, perhaps looking to pump some life into his moribund club, benched high-priced snipers Bernie Nicholls and John Ogrodnick, explaining, "We went as long as we could with them, but the effort and production hasn't been there."

Between them, Nicholls, a former 70-goal scorer, and Ogrodnick, who once checked in with 50, had just three goals during the month of March. After spending 153 days in first place, the Rangers went 1-9-1 before last night's 6-3 win.

This is the ninth straight year the Caps get to play in April and they show an overall record of 32-36 while winning five series and losing eight. During a recent visit to the Cap Centre with the St. Louis Blues, defenseman Scott Stephens was asked to assess the spotty performance of his former team in the playoffs.

"Our goal-scoring talent wasn't that good," he answered, bluntly. "We always had good defensive teams, but you can only go so far when everything you do is based on defense. The series we played always took a lot out of us.

"In the playoffs, you've got to have that guy who can get you a quick goal, so that you don't have to grind it out every game. When we got that kind of scoring last year [from John Druce], you saw what happened."

The Caps took out New Jersey in six games and the Rangers in five before the Boston Bruins hammered them four straight. It's anybody's guess how things will play out this time.

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