Before this season began, Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray had a new game plan for previously checking forward Mike Ridley.
Tonight, when the Capitals skate on to the ice at the newly named USAir Arena for their home opener against the New Jersey Devils, Washington fans might be just a little surprised to see just how well that part of the formula is working.
The physical play needs work, and the Capitals are going to have to take better care of the puck, but the combination of Ridley, Dimitri Khristich and Pat Elynuik is working just fine.
Ridley, who led the Caps in scoring during the preseason, continued in the role Wednesday.
Picking up where Dale Hunter and Michal Pivonka left off last year as Khristich's setup men, Ridley set up two goals by Khristich and scored one of his own, giving Washington three of its four goals on a night when the Caps would wind up getting beat, 6-4, by the Winnipeg Jets.
That line will be front and center tonight, even if many of Washington's fans are not. Late yesterday afternoon, as many as 3,700 tickets remained for this game.
"I'd have liked it to be sold out," said Washington's vice president of marketing Lew Strudler. "But we're not opening against a glamour team like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia like we have in the past, and I think it's so early, people aren't focusing on hockey yet."
It's early, but Ridley is focused. Wednesday evening he learned how much he is going to be paid this season and rejoiced in his good fortune.
"I've always been happy here, and now I'm happy to have this settled and I think it's fair," Ridley said. "The good thing is that I was given Michal Pivonka's bonus package, which means if I do well in the role I'm in, I'll be rewarded for it."
Ridley will earn $875,000 this season, but if he produces 90 points, has a plus number in the plus/minus column (a player gets a plus point when on the ice when his team scores, a minus point when the opponent scores), and the team makes the playoffs, he can pick up another $100,000 or so. Originally, the Capitals offered $775,000, and Ridley asked for $1,050,000.
Yesterday, Capitals general manager David Poile said he thought the decision fair, adding, "if he keeps playing like this, I won't mind paying" any of it.
Ridley said it is too early to start talking about leading scorers, but said because his back feels good, he believes he can produce more than he did last season, when he was Washington's second-leading scorer with 82 points.
"I just go out and do as well as I can," he said. "But I think with Dave Poulin coming in, one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and teaming with Kelly [Miller] that that line will do well. And I'm pretty happy that over the years, while playing that defensive role for us, I've been able to show my ability to be a good scorer and be given this chance."
NOTES: The Capitals hoped to hear from the NHL yesterday concerning a possible change in Dale Hunter's status. Hunter is serving a 21-game suspension for injuring New York Islander Pierre Turgeon with a late hit in the playoffs last season. Part of that suspension includes not practicing with the team until two weeks before the suspension is scheduled to expire. The Capitals are hoping commissioner Gary Bettman will relent on the practice side of the penalty, but there was no word yesterday. Poile has been given no sign that any word would be coming soon. Hunter will be introduced with the team to-night . . . The Caps are planning a laser show and have been told to make sure players stay on the blue line, or risk being burned.
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
Radio: WMAL (630 AM)
Tickets: 3,700 available
Outlook: In their home opener, the Capitals (0-1) face a New Jersey team that won its opener Wednesday over Tampa Bay, 2-1. The Devils seem to be taking a page from the Capitals' old book, going for a defensive, team-oriented style, unlike the offensive-minded Winnipeg Jets, who beat the Caps, 6-4, Wednesday. Washington LW Randy Burridge (pulled groin) is day-to-day, and G Rick Tabaracci (knee ligaments) is out. New Jersey G Peter Sidorkiewicz (right shoulder) and D Tommy Albelin (urinary infection) are out.