Could Capitals, Canucks play for 'expansion' Cup? Notebook

November 26, 1991|By James H. Jackson

The Washington Capitals against the Vancouver Canucks in the 1992 Stanley Cup final? Think about it. It's not that far-fetched. Remember, two other expansion teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars, were in the cup final a year ago.

The Capitals and Canucks are the early-season surprises of the National Hockey League. Washington is at the top in the Wales Conference and Patrick Division and Vancouver is in a similar position in the Campbell Conference and Smythe Division.

Washington has been in the Stanley Cup playoffs nine consecutive years and the Canucks have made it to the playoffs in 11 of the last 17 years. This could be the year that one goes all the way.

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The Capitals, perhaps more than the Canucks, are the talk of the NHL. Not so much for their excellent record but because of their scoring punch.

A team that has relied mostly on defense, the Capitals have turned into a scoring machine with a league-leading 114 goals in 23 games, an average of five goals.

"With Washington, some of their younger and European players have come into their own," said New York Rangers coach Roger Neilson. "They were always a very good defensive team, and now they are scoring, too."

The European line of Michal Pivonka, Peter Bondra and Demitri Khristich has been scoring goals in bunches; Randy Burridge, acquired in a trade last summer from the Boston Bruins, has added to the scoring punch; and veterans Mike Ridley, Dino Ciccarelli and Dale Hunter also have contributed.

The change in the Capitals seems representative of the change in the Patrick Division. Neilson, who has coached in every division, thinks the Patrick has become the speed division of hockey, much like the Smythe had been.

"In the past, the Patrick used to be known as a physical, close-checking division," Neilson said. "This year, it's more skating and speed and less physical play.

"Washington is now a speed team. We're faster than last year. Pittsburgh has always been that way, a speed team. This year, you go into Philadelphia and Washington and toughness is not a major factor. You worry about the speed."

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The Capitals' rise to the top of the Patrick Division is almost entirely attributable to their awesome offensive surge. The Capitals were 15th in the NHL last season with 258 goals, an average of 3.23. Through their first 23 games this season, the Capitals had scored 114 goals -- 4.95 per game. They scored five or more goals in 15 games, something they managed only 17 times in 80 games last season.

The Capitals also have discovered that the easiest way to win a title is to beat up everyone else in the division. They won their first nine Patrick Division games, including all three against the second-place New York Rangers and two against Pittsburgh.

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