PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA -- It's a formula winning teams have followed since Columbus showed up on these shores and suggested the gang get rid of their sea legs with a little athletic competition:
Play the good teams even and beat up on the have-nots. Remember the indignities the Yankees used to heap upon the dregs?
Against everyone else in the NHL, the Washington Capitals turned in an inglorious 24-34-6 record this season. But against the teams they had to beat out for a playoff spot, the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders, they were 12-1-1.
The Caps arrived at that scintillating mark and, in the process, gained postseason play last night by smashing the Flyers, 3-0.
Once a hell hole where wins or even ties were few and far between, the Spectrum was like a tomb as Washington handled Philly with almost laughable ease over the last two periods.
The score was only 1-0 heading into the last 20 minutes, but the Caps were so dominant even the most ardent among the home fanatics didn't hold out much hope that the Flyers would avoid playoff elimination for the second straight year.
John Druce and Mike Ridley's empty-netter at the end emphasized the disparity between the two teams, but it was Kevin Hatcher's 24th goal at 13:25 of the middle stanza that proved decisive.
"That and the fact we couldn't put a dent in [Caps goalie Don] Beaupre," added Philadelphia coach Paul Holmgren.
The Flyers were credited with seven shots in each period, but only a couple of the combined total tested Beaupre, who was notching his second shutout in 13 days against them.
The shocking how the fortunes of fun and games can turn so rapidly. Perhaps a bit fearful of even making the playoffs heading into last night, the Caps, in a tie for third place with New Jersey at present, could make it all the way up to second place if they win their last two games and the suddenly vulnerable New York Rangers continue to flounder.
"Wouldn't that be something, getting the home-ice advantage after being in fifth place most of the season?" said Druce.
One can sight almost as many turning points as there are games (80), but Beaupre has his favorite.
"It was the game where we lost to the Devils, 5-1, about a month ago," he recalled. "We had been playing well and we didn't even go down fighting in that one.
"Things looked pretty grim that night. We were six points out of a playoff spot. We were discouraged and maybe that helped turn us
around. That's when you take a serious look at yourselves."
The Caps did and, almost immediately, things began to change. They went unbeaten through the next five games. At home, they became terrors, going 8-3-3.
There have been long stretches during the season when the nicest thing you could say about the Caps is at least they showed up every night. The fact is, the Caps are a point better than last year with two games remaining and it was accomplished after losing their best defensive player, Scott Stevens.
Surprisingly and even when it became apparent Philly was going down, the Flyers did not revert to their old Broad Street Bullies routine. "The reason for that," explained Druce, "is the teams realized the game was so important to both of us that we couldn't be in the [penalty] box all night."
Philadelphia not making the playoffs for a second straight year is almost just cause for a city-wide day of mourning being declared here.
"Some guys have been here too long," Holmgren said glumly. "They've been part of the team for a while and we haven't made it two years in a row. Changes will have to be made."
Lately, the Flyers have won just two of 14 games. True, Philly had some devastating injuries, particularly to top defenseman Mark Howe and goalie Ron Hextall, but these are old hands, not guys you figure to be building with.
The Caps, tied with New Jersey at present, host the Devils at the Cap Centre tomorrow night and conclude Sunday night in Buffalo. The playoffs commence next Wednesday.