LANDOVER -- One of the long-standing mysteries of hockey is that no matter how poorly a team played as recently as 15 minutes ago, it suddenly can take on the appearance of a juggernaut on its way to the Stanley Cup.
Such a verity should sustain the Washington Capitals over the next couple of days or until they can get back on the ice tomorrow night against the Minnesota North Stars at the Capital Centre.
Horrid might be too polite a word to describe the Caps' effort yesterday while losing a matinee to the troubled Boston Bruins, 4-1.
Just 24 hours before in Boston, the Caps blew a three-goal, third period lead and was tied, 5-5. . .and, in St. Louis two nights before, Washington gave up the last five goals of the game while losing to the Blues, 7-3.
Thing is, immediately prior to the bad patch, the Caps had gone 7-1-1 as a recovery following a 1-3 stretch. "We're not about to win any awards for consistency," coach Terry Murray noted a while back.
"What was disturbing about this game," the coach said, "is they did what they wanted and we didn't respond to anything. We were really flat and there shouldn't have been that much of a difference since we both faced the same situation of having played each other less than 24 hours before."
Despite the slight stumble at the end of February, the Caps finished the month 8-4-1 and with high hopes of a strong March slingshotting them into the playoffs.
"But this was a pretty negative commentary, something you certainly don't want to see when it's the time of year when you're looking to get something going," said Murray.
While the coach wasn't about to start splattering names around, all one has to do is recall some of the shoddy performances the defensive corps has turned in lately.
Saturday, goalie Don Beaupre was required to make 35 saves to preserve the tie, and poor Jim Hrivnak had 54 pucks sent his way last Thursday in St. Louis.
Through the first half of yesterday's game, Washington had just seven shots to Boston's 20 with the final shot tally being 30-18 for the victors. "And," reminded Beaupre, "the only goal we got was a gift.
"We just can't seem to get anything going at the other end. We're not getting any pressure on them."
"Late in the season and come playoff time, to be successful you have to help out your goalie," said Murray. "Right now, we're making it tough on our goaltender. We're giving up a lot of scoring chances and they can't carry us forever. The goalies aren't the guys I'm worried about. It's the other 18 guys on the bench I'm looking at."
He certainly didn't like what he saw in the first period when the Bruins skated rings around his lads and it was only Beaupre's ability to stop pucks while standing on his head that saw the session end scoreless.
Boston got two goals in the first five minutes of the second period, but by the 10-minute mark the Caps had seized the initiative and, on Dale Hunter's 22nd goal, cut their deficit in half. However, the third period resembled the first and the home team was lucky the final score wasn't worse.
"Maybe we have to work harder," said defenseman Al Iafrate, strapped for anything else to say. "I mean, what can I say, you saw the game."
And so did a sellout gathering of 18,130, who no doubt left wondering how a team with seemingly so much going for it could play so poorly at the start of what it considers its time of the year.
The Bruins, on the other hand, have to be tremendously enthused. Wracked by injuries to its best players all season, they pushed to five games over .500 (30-25-9) for the first time in months and have one of their leaders back, veteran Dave Poulin.
Operated on for a groin/abdominal injury last fall, this was only the third game the ex-Philadelphia Flyer played in all season and he's already had a couple of goals and an assist.
More important, though, he fills the role of leader both on and off the ice as an impeccable example for young players.
"I feel really good considering all the work I've had the last few days after, in effect, not having been on skates since last May," said Poulin. "Maybe the key is [coach] Rick Bowness tossing me into all situations [power plays, penalty killing] right off."
After the North Stars tomorrow, the Caps are home to Winnipeg Friday and New Jersey Saturday. They had won six straight at the Cap Centre before yesterday and, with 11 of the last 15 games at home, still hope to catch the Rangers for the Patrick Division title and perhaps even end as the top gun in the whole league.
Ridiculous, anyone watching the last three games might say. But be aware of that long-standing mystery of hockey that sees teams wretched one moment and nearly unstoppable the next.