Winning Caps overcome burden of injuries, high expectations

January 07, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray is a little more relaxed now. The corners of his mouth aren't so tightly drawn, xTC and the smile, hidden much of the early part of the season, has returned. The reason? At the halfway point of the 84-game NHL season, the Capitals are in second place in the Patrick Division and playing the way everyone expected them to.

For Murray and the Capitals, the fear is gone.

If anyone had told Murray before the season that his No. 1 goalie, Don Beaupre, would be under .500 at this point and that the Caps would play without three of their leading scorers -- Michal Pivonka, Dimitri Khristich and Randy Burridge -- for almost a quarter of the season, Murray would not have believed his team could be 21-16-4 going into tonight's game in Philadelphia.

"I think, it's two things," said Murray. "One, it's getting healthy. No question we missed our key players . . . you take [120] goals out of our lineup immediately, it's going to have an effect. Getting [some of] them back was very important.

The other early problem was expectations. The Caps finished the 1991-92 season with the second-best record in the league and had a number of players coming off career performances. But despite suffering a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, and making the controversial off-season trade of Dino Ciccarelli, they came into this season with high expectations.

"When expectations are high," Murray said, "it can scare you a little bit. As a player, it's coming in and having to perform at the same level and even better than the previous year. We didn't do it. I think the pain of it scared us a little bit or we were afraid of those expectations."

Analyzing the team's early season play that saw the Caps start 7-12-1 before going 14-4-3 since Nov. 22, Murray said the Capitals were hesitant and didn't play as a team.

Caps general manager David Poile, who has suggested everyone wait to assess this team until the end of the season, agreed with Murray.

"It was almost as if from the beginning of training camp players were waiting for someone to make things happen," Poile said. "We had players who weren't playing to their potential and I'm a real big believer in momentum. The last 20 games, you can see the difference. We're relatively healthy, guys are playing up to their abilities and we're starting to live up to our expectations."

The positive side of the first half is that some players did step up and make things happen. The play of back-up goaltender Jim Hrivnak, forward Peter Bondra and defenseman Al Iafrate have been the cornerstones.

Hrivnak, who has suffered from some inconsistency that Murray chalks up to youth, has a 10-4-2 record with a 3.06 goals-against-average. Bondra, who has played in the shadow of Pivonka, emerged as the team's leading goal and point scorer (19 goals, 26 assists), and, perhaps most importantly, he has

continued to contribute consistently since Pivonka and Khristich returned to the lineup.

And then there is Iafrate.

"Al is playing so well," said Murray. "He's just on fire. He's applying himself, and not just on offense. He's playing intelligently on defense. He's using all his skills, playing a complete game. It's exciting. He's grabbed his teammates by the shirt collar and he's dragged them all up to another level. If he stays at that level, contributing to the team and helping us win, he's the Norris Trophy winner [as the league's best defenseman], no question."

Iafrate leads NHL defensemen with 14 goals compared to 17 all last season.

Murray says the players have committed themselves to the hard work they earlier wanted to "run away from." And all of this has gone a long toward quieting the debate over the Ciccarelli trade to Detroit last summer and the speculation that Murray's job was on the line.

"All of that really bothered me," Murray said. "I think all the talk about the trade and my job was unfair because we had so many players out with injuries."

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