When an NHL team is as beaten up as the Washington Capitals, it is usually in dire straits. But even though the Caps are in the midst of a tight playoff-qualifying race while dealing with their biggest-ever string of injuries, they are showing a strong finishing kick.
Although the team is without eight key members of the roster, Washington is 5-1-3 in its past nine games going into tonight's meeting with the New York Rangers.
The Caps need four points in their last three games to eliminate the need for tiebreakers and make it impossible for New Jersey or Tampa Bay to catch up.
As Caps goalie Jim Carey put it: "If we just win our games, there's no way we can't make the playoffs."
Washington can clinch a berth tonight if it beats the Rangers and the Devils lose. If neither of those things happens, Washington still has home games against New Jersey tomorrow and the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
"It's ridiculous, but it's real," Caps general manager David Poile said of the string of injuries.
"I've noticed that we're playing good. We're certainly playing more consistently. The amount of mistakes we're making are so much fewer."
As the Caps continue their push toward a 14th straight playoff appearance, Poile said his team's depth is even deeper than he believed.
"Does it go deeper?" he said, repeating the question. "The answer is: There is more, and, if we have to, we'll find a way. But we want to get healthier, not more injured."
Poile said he can't remember a time when the injury situation has been this bad. "Maybe we've had four of our players hurt at one time -- and that's a lot."
But nothing like this -- and not at this time of the year.
He and Rangers general manager Neil Smith can compare notes tonight. New York has seven players on the injured list, including leading scorers Mark Messier and Pat Verbeek.
The Caps are without defensemen Calle Johansson, Brendan Witt, Ken Klee and, probably, Joe Reekie, who did not skate yesterday. Forwards Steve Konowalchuk, Keith Jones, Pat Peake and Craig Berube also are out.
So that means three of their starting defensemen and three of their four top goal scorers are missing. Only Reekie and, perhaps, Klee have a realistic chance of returning before the regular season ends Saturday.
But several strange phenomena have occurred since the injuries have begun piling up.
The Caps, with all of their top players active, had the fourth-worst goal production in the league. But since March 15, when Jones became the first of the offensive guns to drop, the Caps have increased their scoring. Minuscule though it may be, Washington has improved its average goals from 2.85 to 2.91.
On the defensive side, with Carey improving his play, the Caps have maintained the third-best defense in the league and in the past 12 games cut their goals-against average from 2.59 to 1.91.
Capitals tonight Opponent: New York Rangers
Site: Madison Square Garden, New York
Time: 7: 30
TV/Radio: Ch. 50/WNAV (1430 AM)
Outlook: The Rangers are in the running for the top stop in the Eastern Conference and can finish no lower than third. Rangers C Mark Messier (bruised rib cartilage) and RW Pat Verbeek (back spasms) are unlikely tonight. D Marty McSorley (groin strain) is probable, C Sergei Nemchinov (bruised elbow) is questionable, D Alexander Karpovtsev (back spasms) is day-to-day and D Kevin Lowe (groin strain) is possible. Capitals D Calle Johansson (sprained wrist), LW Steve Konowalchuk (broken thumb), LW Keith Jones (groin), C Pat Peake (knee bruise) and D Brendan Witt (broken wrist) are out, and D Joe Reekie (bruised foot) is day-to-day.
Pub Date: 4/10/96