LANDOVER -- It started out somewhat like an all-star exhibition: Lots of fancy skating and no hitting, and perish the thought of anyone being whistled for a penalty.
After all, it figured to take more than mere hours for the players to get union solidarity out of their systems and get back to the business of playing hockey after the first strike in NHL history concluded. About 11 minutes of inaction had gone by when the chorus "boring, boring" could be heard from on high.
Hockey players, being the competitive animals that they are, took the cue and the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders skated to a fairly interesting, 1-1 overtime tie last night before a half-empty Capital Centre. Or was it half-filled?
It was interesting in that the Caps clinched second place overall in the league and appeared enthusiastic about it. Meanwhile, the Isles, with no postseason play to look forward to, nevertheless gave it a first-rate effort commemorating Al Arbour's NHL record-tying mark of having coached 1,437 games. He breaks the tie with Dick Irvin (1930-56) when the Islanders play host to New Jersey tomorrow.
"Clinching second place is a thrill for me and a tribute to our players," said Caps coach Terry Murray, "because it's one of the goals we set entering the last month of the season. What it proves is we came to work every game, or almost every game."
With one game remaining -- tomorrow night in Pittsburgh -- Washington stands at 45-26-8, good for 98 points and clinching the runner-up spot over the Detroit Red Wings. Which, recall, are coached by Terry's brother and former Caps coach Bryan Murray. Think that won't be mentioned at the next gathering of the Murray clan in Shawville, Ontario?
Getting the particulars out of the way, pronto, Dino Ciccarelli scored for the Caps and Ray Ferraro did likewise for the Islanders. Both goals came in the second period. From late in the middle session to the end of overtime, the Caps outshot New York 20-5.
No wonder Murray was happy despite the tie, knowing that success in the playoffs is predicated on defense and his lads have played it impressively the two games back.
"I'll tell you, I was pleasantly surprised at the Sunday skate-around before our game in New Jersey," he said. "We had no contact with the players during the strike, but I knew they were working hard because a lot of them were going to the health club my wife belongs to and she said they were riding bikes and lifting weights all over the place."
The coach estimated that after 77 games of the season and assuming a guy isn't partying and staying out all night, it would take at least a week or 10 days for a player's conditioning to deteriorate badly. "First time I saw the guys skate, I said, 'Hey, what have you guys been doing? You look great.' "
What must be remembered here is Murray has always qualified as an optimist of the first order. The cup (or arena) is always half full, not half empty. For example, he estimated that in back-to-back games with the Devils and Islanders, the team performed at about a 75 percent intensity level. "And with the game in Pittsburgh and four good days of practice before our playoff opener Sunday, we'll have just the right amount of time to get back to our best," he said.
It's no secret that to achieve success in what appears to be a wide-open chase for the Stanley Cup, the Caps must have better defense and Ciccarelli at his pesty best. Last night, the Caps had all their defenders available and it showed as they restricted the Islanders to 15 shots over 65 minutes.
The leader, Rod Langway, had missed five games to a pulled groin muscle, but the 10-day strike respite helped out immeasurably and he reported no problems following this lengthy test.
Ciccarelli, who would have traded almost anything he owns for a goal this time last month, is suddenly on a scoring roll, with 10 goals in the last nine games.
Another plus the Caps are apt to realize from the unscheduled break in the regular season is the much-needed recovery time Randy Burridge has accrued. Down since suffering a torn ligament on March 1, Washington's top power-play producer has been back skating for more than a week and he's confident he'll be able to make the game against whomever Sunday night.
It won't be known for another day or two who will be the Caps' first-round foe as New Jersey and Pittsburgh are still battling it out for third spot in the Patrick Division. The Devils pulled ahead by two points last night, beating the Penguins, 5-1, but Pittsburgh has a game in hand.
Washington meets the third-place finisher while the fourth-place bunch goes against the New York Rangers in a best-of-seven series also starting Sunday.