LANDOVER -- When it's late in the regular season and the Washington Capitals are driving for a NHL playoff spot, there's never a dull moment. The dull moments usually begin showing up once postseason play is under way.
A couple of days ago, after winning back-to-back games against Hartford and on the road in Pittsburgh, the Caps had garnered 45 points and seemed all but assured of the No. 6 position in the Eastern Conference.
A loss at Madison Square Garden, the team and coach treating the New York Rangers to a two-goal head start Monday, did nothing to brighten the situation, the four teams immediately behind winning and picking up a valuable two points.
Still, the way things have been going lately, the half-dozen teams in pursuit of the last three spots in the playoff picture "piling" up points a fraction at a time, sweaty palms weren't in order. Yet.
Last night, that changed. Try as they might and with the New York Islanders contributing generously, the Caps were adamant in refusing to accept what could have been a relaxed victory. The Isles, next to last in the conference only because 6-33-5 Ottawa exists, showed up obviously thinking this was demolition derby on skates.
A total of 15 times they had players whistled off for roughing, high-sticking, slashing, boarding, the usual forms of hockey mayhem, putting Washington on the power play nine times. Four times the Caps cashed in, twice while holding two-man advantages.
A breeze, right? It was anything but until the home team, knotted at 5-5 midway through the third period, got the game-winning goal out of Sylvain Cote with 8:50 remaining. It ended 6-5.
No, the 11,343 loyalists in attendance kept telling themselves, that could not have been Jim Carey in goal for the Caps. Harry Caray, the baseball announcer, or maybe Jim Carrey (alias "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective") maybe, certainly not our Jim. Cary Middlecoff, Cary Grant, Max Carey, maybe even Carry Nation, but certainly not our Jim.
The very same. The youngster entered the game with a sparking 16-6-2 record and 2.07 goals-against average despite some rough sledding lately. If ever a netminder was ripe for plucking from between the pipes, it was Jimbo.
Coach Jim Schoenfeld said the rookie was "uncharacteristically off." Wow, what an understatement. New York didn't need power plays. Zigmund Palffy, who gave a fine imitation of Guy Lafleur, made Carey look as if he took up goaltending sometime earlier in the week. Twice he coaxed him out of the net, deked him to a sprawling position well away from the goal and shot bull's eyes over his flailing glove and stick.
Earlier, Carey had given up soft goals, two or three depending on your perspective. It was fortunate for the Caps that Joe Juneau was setting up mates with passes that Baby Snooks could have slipped by Isles goalie Tommy Soderstrom. Juneau was an equal opportunity assist man, setting up Dimitri Khristich, Michal Pivonka and Calle Johansson for goals Nos. 3, 4 and 5.
As if Carey wasn't having enough trouble zeroing in on the puck, his defensemen let everyone but the vendors set up shop in front of theWashington goal early, and teammates put the visitors on the power play three times in the first 10 minutes of the third period, the Islanders finally coming through to forge the fourth tie of the game at 5-5.
Truly, this was the type victory that you accept with your head down, followed immediately by a sprint for the door. Schoenfeld, tongue bulging in cheek, said an explanation for his club's performance could have been the "unstructured game" the Islanders played.
The win, such as it was, was almost necessary. Otherwise, victorious Buffalo, which visits USAir Are na tomorrow night, would have leap-frogged the Caps into sixth place with the winning Rangers tying them. As it is, the Capitals pulled to within a point of fifth-place New Jersey.
If all this confuses, just wait a while and it will get worse. The only thing certain at this point is half the conference playoff field of eightteams is set and the Stanley Cup charge starts May 6 (or 7).