LANDOVER -- The last time a diagrammed play actually worked in a hockey game was the same week Constantinople changed its name to Istanbul.
The home team had pulled goalie Jim Carey in favor of a sixth attacker about 45 seconds previous and the pressure on the Flyers' goal was only so-so when the whistle blew and a faceoff was called deep in the Philly end of the ice just to the right of goalie Ron Hextall.
The Caps called time out and, usually in these cases, the coach just says "everybody storm the net." But just five days before, the goalie had been yanked in the last minute and the Capitals had scored to rescue a 5-5 tie in Ottawa.
This fresh in their minds, perhaps the players listened a bit more intently as an actual play was designed. Evidence of this was forthcoming when one of the players, Michal Pivonka, the man taking the faceoff, made a suggestion that ended up being the key to the whole maneuver.
With 13 seconds showing on the clock, the puck was dropped, Pivonka nudged it ahead off to his left and Dale Hunter, a left-hand shot jumped in front of his Flyers' opposite and sent the puck screaming across the front of the Philadelphia goal.
Hunter was sent out with Pivonka's line because the usual left winger, Dimitri Khristich, is a right-hand shot. Chances of his scoring on a backhand were maybe 250-1.
Anyway, while this was happening to the left of the Washington formation, something just as important had to take place off to the right. Two Caps lined up to the right of Pivonka, defenseman Mark Tinordi and, on the flank, Peter Bondra. The latter's assignment was to drift off to his right and set up on the far side of the goal. The man playing Bondra was budding superstar Eric Lindros, who stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 230 pounds.
"As soon as the puck dropped, I went to my right," said Bondra. "Lindros went back toward the center and I was wide open."
On cue, Hunter's pass shot past Hextall, who was hugging the post to his right, and onto Bondra's stick. He had time to first stop the puck, then deposit it into the net as Hextall scurried to his left to try to make the stop.
The clock showed 10.9 seconds remained. Only two seconds had transpired. Designing the play and telling everybody what to do probably took 25 times that long. The teams then went scoreless during a five-minute overtime and you might be asking, so what's the big deal about two clubs playing a tie in the 30th game of a season. This.
Even though the Caps went out yesterday on home ice and lost a 4-3
decision to Hartford in overtime, the Philly contest will be remembered for a couple of reasons:
First, the Caps coming through with a clutch play when all seemed lost in a game pitting the two hottest teams in the NHL. Second, the creative manner in which the Caps performed in what amounted to a playoff atmosphere had to be a big boost.
The Flyers, top guns in the Atlantic Division, had been plunderers of late, winning eight straight games before having the streak halted by perky Hartford. Over the last 19 games, the Lindros line had accounted for 97 points while the team was losing just twice.
The thing about Lindros & Company, is his wingers, John LeClair and Mikael Remberg, are nearly as large as Eric, both measuring 6-2 and 220 pounds. Washington's rookie goalie likened it to the eclipse of the sun when they enter the offensive zone: "The lights go out."
To combat these power-punching behemoths, who have combined for 46 goals and 51 assists over those 19 games, Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld countered with Hunter, Dave Poulin and Kelly Miller. On the average, they were giving up four inches and nearly 30 pounds. And youth.
The great equalizer was experience. While Lindros, LeClair and Remberg entered the game with a combined 509 games under their belts, the Caps trio had more than three times that many plus another 118 games. It showed.
They dragged out every trick in the book and a few more created for the occasion. Hunter got in a mild holding and shoving match with Lindros, for instance, not to inflict bodily harm but to cause a delay allowing the veterans a necessary breather to stay out there and play even until the end of the shift.
Another highlight for the Caps occurred early when Philly's resident policeman Shawn Antoski went after Craig Berube with fire in his eyes. Berube ducked a couple of punches and didn't retaliate as they fell to a heap on the ice. Antoski was sent off for roughing, the Caps went on the power play and, upon his return to the bench, Berube was accorded high-fives all around by his mates for not fighting.
Maybe that's what made the day so special, Berube, whose dukes always seem to be in the upright position, avoiding one for the good of the team.