There are still a dozen games to go, which, if it was football, sounds like forever. But this is hockey and it's a deep breath when put in the context of an 80-game regular season.
"We're in good shape," assured man of the hour Dale Hunter, whose overtime goal had lifted the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils Saturday night. More importantly, it ended a five-game (0-3-2) winless drought during the month when teams are supposed to be building momentum for the playoffs.
"Slumps and streaks, that's what this is all about," continued Hunter. "It takes a while to get used to them so that they don't eat you up. I remember when I first came up I used to lie awake C worrying about it."
Now a dozen years later and still just 31, Hunter is the consummate pro: reliable, consistent, tough, clever and with a work ethic second to none.
"The thing about slumps," he said, "is although you don't like going through them, they happen to everybody and you accept it. That's tough for a rookie, but a guy who has been around knows the bad times end somewhere."
Across the way, some of the folks in the visiting locker room weren't so sure. It had been just 24 hours, but it seemed like a year since his Devils had caught a break, according to coach Tom McVie.
"If the effort wasn't there, we wouldn't be that upset," he said. "But two nights in a row you battle your guts out and get nothing."
Friday night, the Devils led 4-1 late in the second period, only to end up losing to Buffalo, 5-4. The officiating was such that some Jerseyite ended up kicking a hole in the dressing room door.
Entering the game trailing second-place Washington by just four points, the Devils wanted this one badly. "They played a heckuva first 40 minutes," said McVie, "but we came on so well in the third period, I didn't think we'd lose this one. But then there's that Hunter."
The Capitals were the aggressor in the first period, but still left the ice trailing 1-0 on an oops goal by Stephane Richer. Hunter assisted Dimitri Khristich and John Druce fed Peter Bondra a nice setup pass to push the home team ahead when Ken Daneyko scored his first goal in a couple of years to square it with just 18 seconds remaining in the middle period.
"We both played last [Friday] night, but I don't think the lack of scoring chances in the third period were because we were tired," said Hunter. "We think we're working hard down on the ice all the time, although it may not look like it from the stands. The building was hot and maybe we were playing not to lose."
That changed quickly during the five-minute sudden victory session. New Jersey ventured into the Caps' end once and didn't threaten. Then, action switched to the other end and the Devils were in trouble.
Finally, Paul MacDermid, in just his third game as a Cap, tallied his second assist and third point, by putting a shot on goal. It missed but Al Iafrate grabbed the rebound and slid a pass to Hunter, who was at the left post and whipped it over goalie Chris Terreri's left shoulder.
"It's a good sign, us winning," said Hunter. "But it really doesn't mean that much. You have to keep going out and working hard every game and see what happens. Sometimes, it's a pretty good idea not to think so much, just do it and don't worry."
The goal was Hunter's 23rd (and fourth game-winner) and the assist (44) took him to 67 points, well within reach of his career scoring season of 1983-84 in Quebec (24-55--79). He allowed that the Capitals' 19-9 record against Patrick Division foes is "another good sign since these are the guys we'll be playing in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Still, it doesn't mean that much. It'll be a completely different season when the playoffs begin."
Along those lines, Washington closed to within five points of the New York Rangers with the win and it's six points up on New Jersey, which is five ahead of Pittsburgh. These are semi-comfortable advantages with just a dozen games to go but, as usual, there's a flood of intra-division games remaining. Philadelphia and the New York Islanders aren't out of it yet, but both of them have more road than home games remaining.
Come the search for Lord Stanley's goblet then, look for the Rangers to square off against the Penguins and the Caps to go against these Devils. They lead the series four games to two with a game to go, but as Dale Hunter is wont to say, "it don't mean a thing come April."