LANDOVER -- This current cast is not the best hockey team among the 17 the Washington Capitals have put on the ice in their history. In fact, it might be strapped to make the top five.
However, Rod Langway is one guy who hints it probably would be a bad idea to sell the sometimes rag-tag outfit short at this point.
More than perhaps in any other game, hockey is a total team commitment and the defensive beacon of the club seems to have a special feel for this edition's ability to perform in the face of long odds.
"It's just been a pleasure playing here all year," Langway says. "A couple of reasons for that are there has been virtually no complaining, and everyone understands and works hard at his role."
Go back six weeks. It appeared as if there was no way in the Helter Skelter Division (alias the Patrick) the Caps would make the playoffs. "We finally came together and had a solid month of March," recalls coach Terry Murray, "and we've kept it going in April."
Go back about a week. It seemed after three games against the New York Rangers, the Caps weren't long for the postseason, especially when they were hammered by the Broadway Blues, 6-0, in their own arena.
"Hell, that's like losing 1-0; the score doesn't make any difference," says Langway. "We knew that when the chips were down, we had the guys to get the job done."
Just as the captain ordered, Washington evened the series at two with a 3-2 victory at home, won an overtime thriller, 5-4, in Madison Square Garden, and closed it out Saturday night, smothering the Rangers, 4-2, at the Cap Centre.
Next up for the Caps, in the division final best-of-seven series beginning Wednesday night, will be the winner of tonight's Pittsburgh Penquins-New Jersey Devils Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
"We're to the point now where we just know we can play in anyone's building," says Langway. "And we know that guys like [Dale] Hunter, Dino [Ciccarelli], [Mike] Ridley, [Dave] Tippet -- guys who have lost series -- are going to come through when it means the most."
Just a couple of games ago, New York's young goalie Mike Richter was unbeatable, particularly against a team whose top scorers consisted of a defenseman, Kevin Hatcher, and a defensive forward, Kelly Miller. "But as a series goes along," says Caps goalie Don Beaupre, "we do a good job of ferreting out an opposing team's weakness and going after it."
First, the Caps put 37 shots on Richter. He withstood the challenge. Then, last Thursday, they belted 55 his way. Five got past, including the last one, Ciccarelli's game-winner 6:44 into overtime. The constant pressure caused a slight crack, which became a yawning fissure Saturday when, in little more than the first seven minutes, Washington took four shots and three of them beat Richter. He was lifted.
"He had to have been really tired coming in here [a volcanic Cap Centre] after losing two in a row," said Beaupre of his young rival. "But Mike made a series out of it. We played better defense throughout and that was the difference. It always is in the playoffs."
For the time being, at least, the Caps are the recipients of what is probably the best goalkeeping extant in the competition for Lord Stanley's Cup. The situation in goal has rarely been a strong point for Washington in eight previous playoffs.
"What's so good about Donny, and Mike Liut for that matter, is they accept the No. 1 role or the No. 2 role," says Langway. "They're a couple of veterans and they don't complain. We practice and play about 180 times a year and it's a nice feeling, compared to other years, to come in and not have to listen [to griping]. You don't need it."
In the finale, Beaupre stopped 23 of 25 shots sent his way. He thwarted Darren Turcotte -- who unloaded from point blank range -- to kill off the Ranger's last real threat with six minutes remaining. He entered the game with a snappy 2.55 goals-against average and improved upon that figure.
"The tag I had is [lack of] consistency," says Beaupre, who came to the Caps in a trade from Minnesota in 1988. "But it was tough being consistent for a last place team. You lose your confidence. I have so much more confidence in this team and myself."
Washington, be assured, is not a team that scores a lot of goals. The Caps surrendered as many as they scored during the regular season, 258. They stress defense, first, second and foremost, and that's always No. 1 on a goalie's Christmas list.
The linchpin, as always, has been Langway, of whom Terry Murray says, "Rod's as good as he was three or four years ago: strong, smart and with great leadership."
"Times have changed," says Langway. "We made changes in the defensive corps. I've picked up some better offensive partners, guys like [Mikhail] Tartarinov and [Al] Iafrate, and that has allowed me to concentrate more on my defensive game. I go against the best players every night and it helps to only have to concentrate on stopping them."
The leadership comes in, Langway guesses, "with the young guys going out there knowing I'm not going to make stupid plays in back of them. When I was young, playing with quality players in Montreal, I knew that the Larry Robinsons and Bob Gaineys weren't going to do anything stupid. It's safe hockey and smart hockey."