NEW YORK -- The Washington Capitals turned in another of their amazing performances last night at an emotionally charged Madison Square Garden.
With the sellout crowd booing its every move, Washington clinched its 14th consecutive playoff berth with a 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers.
"I'm relieved and excited," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "It's been a long time coming . . . and I'm really happy with the way we're playing. Not only because it's this time of the season and we have to play this well to get in the playoffs, but because we've had a mass of injuries to real good hockey players, and it seems whoever we ask to fill that void has filled it extremely well. We're showing a great discipline and a great feeling for each other.
"We've got a lot of players who have really left it on the ice these last three weeks. They haven't kept anything in reserve and it's taken that complete physical, mental and emotional expenditure to get the job done."
Last night Washington captain Dale Hunter put his team ahead 43 seconds into the opening period. And then, with 5: 20 left in the period, he told rookie Steve Poapst where to stand for a faceoff.
"I had a pretty good feeling I'd win that faceoff," said Hunter, who had two goals. "And I thought he'd get a pretty good shot from there."
There was the top of the left circle where Poapst, a 27-year-old who spent the last five years in the minors, one-timed it for a 2-0 lead.
"I was a little nervous," said Poapst, whose goal was the game-winner.
"But I started from the bottom, in the East Coast Hockey League, and worked my way up. After five years, I got my chance. But to get your first NHL goal in your first game is a dream. I'm going to call my wife right now."
It was just the latest big play by another call-up from the minors. After Hunter made it 3-0, rookie Andrew Brunette scored Washington's fourth goal.
On the defensive side, Washington rotated Sylvain Cote, Jim Johnson, Mark Tinordi, Eric Charron and Sergei Gonchar and they gave the Rangers nothing.
It wasn't until the clock had ticked down to 1: 49 to play that Capitals goalie Jim Carey lost his bid for a 10th shutout on a power-play goal by Alexei Kovalev.
"We're shooting for home-ice advantage now," said Carey, who made 26 saves in helping the Capitals get over the .500 mark on the road for the season at 18-17-6.
"We still have a chance for fourth place and home ice. But you've got to win on the road in the playoffs and we're showing we can do that."
Despite clinching a playoff spot, no one was ready to do a lot of celebrating.
Washington returns to USAir Arena tonight to take on the ninth-place New Jersey Devils, who should be inspired as they try to avoid becoming the first defending Stanley Cup Champion to fail to qualify for the playoffs since Montreal in 1970.
"We can still finish anywhere from fourth to eighth," said Schoenfeld. "We're going to put our best team on the ice and try to win our last two games. We've come this far winning and I think it's better to finish winning."
Given all the injuries Washington has sustained in this playoff drive, no one in the lineup is likely to get any rest tonight, unless it's Carey.
Schoenfeld said, however, he hadn't made a decision on his goaltender for tonight. The coach also said he may be making more call-ups today due to two more injuries.
Todd Krygier suffered an arm injury last night, and Ken Klee, who returned from a groin strain last night, hurt his knee in a mid-ice collision. Both players were to be examined today to determine their status.
Pub Date: 4/11/96
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
Time: 7: 30
TV/Radio: HTS/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The Capitals return home for their last two games of the regular season against the New Jersey Devils and the Buffalo Sabres. Tonight, they take on the Devils, a team they have yet to beat in four previous meetings this season. The Devils report C Neal Broten (ankle) is questionable, LW Valeri Zelepukin is probable and D Shawn Chambers (broken hand) is day-to-day.