Impasse could strike down Caps' best shot


LANDOVER -- Figures, doesn't it? The Washington Capitals are finishing off perhaps their finest season and their best squad is all dressed up, but with no place to go.

Maybe you must hearken back to the 1974-75 season, when the fledgling Caps made their first season the most futile ever by an NHL team, to fully appreciate the irony of the situation.

On one front, the negotiating front, the logheads are at loggerheads: The owners have an offer on the table, the players have a proposal on that very same table. Unfortunately, there's no one in the room.

If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one to hear it, does it make a sound?

Each is insisting the ball (or puck) is in the other guy's court (or end) and awaits a reply. The immediate problem is for the sides to agree on whose turn it is to do something . . . anything.

Meanwhile, after whacking the Vancouver Canucks yesterday, 7-4, the Caps can speculate on what might have been or what still might be.

Even with uncertainty rampant as of today's scheduled walkout, visions of sugarplums have to be dancing in Capital heads as they think of their accomplishments and the situation away from the empty negotiating table.

Clearly, this is one of those years when the Stanley Cup isn't signed, sealed and delivered for a dynasty in Edmonton or up on Long Island and Washington must be accorded a very good chance of achieving hockey nirvana.

Check out what the team with the 8-67-5 start 17 seasons ago has done: The Caps' latest win, their 44th, boosted them to 95 points, making them the odds-on choice to figure second in the league even if the teams do come back by tomorrow and finish out the regular season.

It's the way the team has performed against the NHL's upper crust, though, that sends an extra charge of confidence through the cast.

Assuming the playoffs start on time, April 8, the Caps would have home advantage against either New Jersey or Pittsburgh, teams they hold 4-2 and 5-1 advantages over to date.

Even the rawest rookie will tell you what happens during the regular season has no bearing on postseason play. Still, the 80-game campaign establishes form and, if form holds true, the Caps can handle the Devils and Penguins.

Assuming they advanced to the second round, the Capitals, in all probability, would probably meet the league's top team on the record, the New York Rangers.

Washington won the season series with the Broadway Blues, 5-2. It won all three games in Madison Square Garden and, during the playoffs last year, took two of three there. So much for the so-called home-ice advantage the Rangers would have if the two met.

Two other top teams this season have been the Adams Division champion Montreal Canadiens and Smythe Division-leading Vancouver. The Caps beat both of them over the weekend, winning the season series from the Habs, 3-0, and going 1-1-1 with the Canucks. While Washington was going 5-2 lately, Vancouver was a stumbling 1-4 and getting beat up.

In short, it appears the Caps have the most going for them than they ever have during their 10 straight visits to the playoffs.

All this only becomes operative, however, if the sides get together and make the NHL's first work stoppage in its 75 years noteworthy for its brevity.

One almost doesn't have to mention the bones of contention between labor and management: free agency, arbitration procedure, pension contribution, medical benefits, playoff money, the entry draft, roster size, waiver rules, meal money, the usual stuff.

Right in the middle of the negotiations is John Ziegler, owners' spokesman who doubles as league commissioner, a strange situation indeed.

It's great to read some of John's pronouncements, though, because often they border on the inane. For instance, Ziegler called a halt to the talks in Toronto early yesterday, explaining the owners had a meeting scheduled in Chicago later in the day. What could possibly be more pressing than an impending strike, he was asked.

"Oh, a lot of things," came the reply with no further illumination. John did say if "[players association executive director Bob] Goodenow wants to call me [today], I will be available. If there's something to be done, we can do it."

If there's something to be done?

The fact the commissioner is available is an improvement. Recall, during the playoffs a couple of years ago, he made himself incognito for an entire weekend when pressing business was at hand, explaining he hadn't had a vacation in quite a while.

It might not be a bad idea if the players went on record immediately as rejecting management's offer. This and the owners expected turn down of the union's proposal might at least get the two sides back to the table and prevent the commissioner from slipping off to the Bahamas.

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