LANDOVER -- Maybe it was the weather. Yeah, that's it, the Washington Capitals showed up for work thinking it was one of those classic Indian summer days last October and an early-season game didn't mean that much.
No, wait, how about the fact the clocks got shoved ahead to daylight saving time during the early morning hours and the team arrived an hour late for Game 3 of their playoff series with the New York Rangers last night?
Whatever, the simple truth is the Caps got obliterated by the Rangers, 6-0, to fall behind two games to one in the series that resumes here tomorrow night, and no way was yesterday as close as the final score indicates.
"The key when these two teams play is the lead," said Bernie Nicholls, the veteran Ranger who has read the word "struggling" next to his name all season. His contribution: two goals and two assists.
"We both have good defensive teams and play well with the lead," he continued. "And let's not forget the guy we've got in goal."
That, of course, would be Mike Richter, who made it look ridiculously easy after thwarting six Washington shots during a four-minute power play toward the end of the first period.
"I always thought Grant Fuhr when he was with Edmonton was the best goalie I ever played against," said Nicholls, "but now I think this kid. He can stand up with any of them."
Handsome praise indeed coming from a guy who has 364 pucks in the net during the last 11 seasons. On this occasion, at least, was deserved. As Caps coach Terry Murray noted, "It was the kind of game where if we had taken advantage of the power plays we had in the first period, it certainly would have been a different game."
Wishful thinking. Even had the home team got a goal or two during seven minutes of man advantage in the first period, it would have had no more than a tie. And Richter was virtually impossible to beat while his mates were taking target practice against Don Beaupre and replacement Mike Liut down the other end.
Richter, who until the end of the regular season was being used on a rotation basis, wasn't even sure he'd be able to go. He suffered a shoulder injury in New York Friday night. "It wasn't 'til I got up this [yesterday] morning I felt good enough to go. Now I don't want to sound like Clint Eastwood or someone, because if it hurt I would have been practical and sat out with a John Vanbiesbrouck in back of me."
Indication of what kind of a night it was going to be for the Caps came early when they not only squandered a chance at a goal, but watched as the long carom off the boards handed the Rangers a 3-on-1 breakaway. Kris King, not noted for his ability to hit the high corner of the net from 40 feet, buzzed one past Beaupre and the rout was on.
After being unable to make it on the scoreboard following a series of dumb penalties by rambunctious Rangers, Kevin Hatcher was sent off for decking Nicholls and it took Mike Gartner about a minute to reveal the folly of such a move. The ex-Cap's first goal came 30 seconds before the first intermission.
It was still a game until the midpoint of the second period when Nicholls scored. A period later, he had his third goal and fifth point of the series, both assisted by Joe Kocur, resident goon who can also play the game.
Last week and after having been benched for lack of production as the Broadway Blues faded badly in March, Nicholls was being cast for a minor role by the Big Apple media. "But I wasn't concerned with the last month of the season. I had a couple of nagging injuries and I wasn't going to go all out. I was just getting ready for this," said Nicholls.
The man who once pushed 70 of Wayne Gretzky's feeds into the goal for the Los Angeles Kings has been around long enough to know last night's success was probably just a one-shot deal: "Washington's a disciplined team, don't kid yourself. We'll see a much better team Tuesday. They were the better team in both games in New York."
Richter, lead goalie for Team USA in the '88 Olympics, has been in the net the last half-dozen games for the Rangers and is expected to go all the way in the series. "Naw, I'm not tired. If anything, I feel strong because of the way we rotated during the season. I feel as if I'm getting sharper," he said.