Quebec Nordiques coach Pierre Page remembers a night in training camp when the club threw open the doors and invited its fans in for a free look at an intrasquad scrimmage. That night 10,000 doubters showed up.
"Before training camp I had crossed my fingers and hoped the players I was bringing in would play well together," Page said yesterday from his Philadelphia hotel room, where he was preparing for tonight's game against the Flyers. The Nordiques face the Washington Capitals tomorrow at the Capital Centre.
"But you never know," he said. "Once training camp started and I could see we had something going -- that the players believed in what we could do -- we wanted the fans to see for themselves. What a night!"
The fans left believers. The Nordiques have yet to do them wrong. Quebec is the NHL's most improved team. After going 11-26-5 (27 points) in 42 games last season, the Nordiques produced the NHL's fourth best record, 23-13-6 (52 points) after 42 games this season. Before the Canadiens' game against Hartford last night, the Nordiques were were just four points behind Montreal.
"Last season, was the toughest I've ever experienced," said Page, who doubles as general manager. "We had players so anxious to do something good they couldn't. Then there was the [Eric] Lindros decision. In theory, trading his rights wasn't the best thing for us to do."
Most observers attribute the Nordiques' turnaround to the addition of goaltender Ron Hextall, who has the NHL's third-best record at 23-10-4, defenseman Steve Duchesne, center Mike Ricci and defenseman Kerry Huffman -- all acquired in exchange for the rights to Lindros.
"But people forget we actually have 13 new players, not four," he said. "It generally takes time for players to get used to each other, but these guys all came in believing in what we could do. Some of them -- Hextall, Duchesne, [right wing] Tim Hunter, picked up in a trade with Tampa Bay, and [left wing] Gino Cavallini, picked up off waivers, are good people who added the experience we needed.
L "And all of them were willing to take some of the pressure."
Meaning center Joe Sakic, who has been with Quebec since his rookie season five years ago, could breath again. Sakic (32 goals, 33 assists) is Quebec's leading scorer.
"The nicest thing about this turn-around has been seeing the players getting fired up and enthusiastic," said Page. "Sakic is playing the best I've ever seen him. He's really a different person, and while I wouldn't say he's our heart and soul, I would say he's our heart."
The name game
With his Edmonton Oilers 17-27-7 and in fifth place in the Smyth Division, coach Ted Green will try anything to get his team going. This is what he suggested when receiving an injury report on rookie center Shaun van Allen (one goal,four assists), Jan. 9 at the Capital Centre.
"He'll be fine," Green was told, "but he doesn't know who he is."
"Good," Green responded. "Tell him he's Wayne Gretzky."
Van Allen suffered a severe concussion when he slipped, fell backward and smashed his head against the boards. He just received clearance to resume skating tomorrow.
Soderstrom OK to play
The catheterization process Philadelphia goalie Tommy Soderstrom underwent for the fourth time Tuesday did not totally correct his heart rhythm abnormality. But yesterday he was released from the Prince George's Hospital Center and given the OK to return to action, possibly as early as this weekend. He will be re-evaluated in three to four weeks.
In his absence, Dominic Roussel made 31 saves against Buffalo Tuesday before losing in overtime.
Good deeds get results
Minnesota's Mike Modano, making a $1 million a year since signing a four-year deal this season, obviously realizes he can't take it with him. Last week in Tampa, he treated teammates to a steak dinner. The bill: $3,100, including $600 for desserts and an $80 bottle of cognac. The next night, Modano started a five-game point scoring streak that is still alive and Minnesota has matched its longest unbeaten streak of the season at six games.
After a slow start, Washington's home attendance is climbing steadily. Over the first 10 home games, the Caps averaged 15,321 -- and at one point were as many as 2,000 off last year's pace. The average attendance over the second 10 home games is 16,356 and brings the overall average to 15,839, just 800 off last season's final average.