WASHINGTON - When the Washington Capitals played their first NHL game, they were worried about their inexperienced defense. Last night, 30 years later to the day, the Caps were again worried about their defense.
But these Caps, unlike their ancestors, won last night, and in spectacular fashion, too, beating the New York Islanders, 6-1, in the season opener.
Playing a strong group defensive system in which all five players dropped back to protect their zone, the Capitals came within one shot of a shutout and created the offensive chances the system is designed for.
Star right wing Jaromir Jagr took a pass from his 19-year-old center, Boyd Gordon, and scored Washington's first goal 2:04 into the game.
Goal No. 2 came from John Gruden, 33, who was playing in just his 82nd game at the start of his 11th season. When he scored, he became the oldest player to score his first NHL goal since Helmut Balderis did it in 1989 at age 37.
Peter Bondra, the power play sharpshooter, scored twice, once on the power play and once as the sixth attacker, when a delayed penalty was called.
And Mike Grier scored while nosediving toward the net, putting away a rebound of a Jagr shot. Not to be outdone, Jeff Halpern completed the scoring burst by redirecting a shot past Doig with the tip of his hockey stick.
And, oh yeah, the youthful defense? It played just fine, too.
"We played as well as I've seen our team play in a long time," said goalie Olie Kolzig, who made 18 saves. "The `D' was phenomenal. It made quick decisions and they didn't spend much time in our end."
Before anyone gets overly excited, the Caps were playing an Islanders team with talent, but one that is also just trying to come together as a team. A year ago, discord in the locker room undermined team play and created a situation in which a new head coach, Steve Stirling, was installed this season.
"The first three, four minutes we were sloppy," said Stirling, who took his starting goalie, Garth Snow (six goals on 26 shots), out of the game 6:24 into the second period, when the Caps scored their sixth goal. "We just couldn't get anything going."
Much of the reason for that was Washington.
The Capitals entered the game with an untested defense and questions about whether their forwards would buy into the defense-first philosophy.
It was a game plan that worked for the Caps much of the last half of last season, but with two teen-agers in the lineup, a journeyman defender - "It's been more of a journey than a journeyman," said Gruden - and one forward, Brian Willsie, who was almost as much of a mystery as the rookies, no one would have been surprised if the Caps had been the ones taking the beating.
So when Jagr scored it had a calming impact.
"There were nerves," said Bondra, a veteran. "After we scored the first goal, we really settled down. We really played disciplined hockey. "
"There was a lot of happiness to spread around.
The teens, Steve Eminger on defense and Gordon with Jagr, played well. Willsie, who was claimed in the waiver draft, had two assists, and then there was Gruden.
His first goal couldn't have come at a better time. Not only did it give Washington a 2-0 lead, it came on a night when his son Jonathan, 3, had said, "Score a goal, Daddy," just before the game.
"I said, `Yeah, sure' and laughed," said Gruden, who has been out of the NHL playing in the IHL, AHL and Germany the last four years. "I couldn't have asked for a better story. But this is one game. It just starts here."