The Washington Capitals aren't even one of the four division leaders, but they are convinced that this is the year they will become legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.
The Capitals have earned 101 points in each of the last two seasons, only to get knocked off by the New York Islanders in the playoffs.
With their hard-earned 4-3 victory over the Quebec Nordiques Thursday night at Landover, Md., the Capitals moved within six points of Philadelphia, the leader of the Patrick Division.
Bengt Gustafsson assisted on two power-play goals, then scored a short-handed goal to give the Capitals a 3-1 lead after one period. The Nordiques battled back and pulled within one with 7:09 remaining but couldn't get the tying shot past goaltender Pete Peeters.
Although the Capitals are four points ahead of last season's pace, Coach Bryan Murray is expecting better play from two of his most dependable players, Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner. Carpenter scored 53 goals last season, a record for an American-born player, but has only eight points in 33 games this season. Gartner, a 50-goal scorer last season, has 18 points, but only one in his last eight games.
When these two return to form, the Capitals figure to be a legitimate contender.
"We all have to take it seriously," Gartner told the Washington Post. "We have six or seven guys in the prime of careers right now. You don't know how many chances you'll get, so you have to go for it when the chance is there."
One of the Capitals who is having a better season is Dave Christian. Christian scored his 13th power-play goal of the season in the first period Thursday night and has 19 goals. A year ago he had only 11.
"Davey and Gus (Gustafsson) have become a solid combination," Murray said. "Bobby (Carpenter) is struggling, but we know he and Mike (Gartner) are going to score more. Mike has played really well. Bobby has to play better. He will, too."
Murray is happy with his goaltending duo of Al Jensen and Peeters. "Jensen in particular has been just exceptional," Murray said. "He's as good as he's ever been. Pete is adjusting to our style, and he will just keep getting better."
The Capitals have lost only two of their last 18 games. They have played two fewer games than the Flyers, so they need only a little spurt to catch Philadelphia.
Hartford 4, New York Islanders 3--The Whalers, by far the best last-place team in the league, scored another impressive victory at Uniondale, N.Y.
Dave Tippett and Scot Kleinendorst scored first-period goals and Steve Weeks turned in a sparkling goaltending performance.
Weeks stopped 28 shots and was especially strong in the second period, robbing Mike Bossy, Pat LaFontaine, John Tonelli and Duane Sutter on shots from close range. Then he stood off the Islanders on a five-minute power play.
The Whalers have a 17-15-1 record for 35 points. Only 10 teams have a better record. Unfortunately, four of them are in the tough Adams Division. Although in fifth place, the Whalers are only three points out of first place.
Buffalo 6, New York Rangers 1--Norm Lacombe, a right wing called up from the minors just a few hours before the opening faceoff at Buffalo, scored twice to lead a win that kept the Sabres from falling into the cellar in the Adams Division.
Once again the Sabres had tremendous goaltending from Tom Barrasso. The 20-year-old goaltender stopped 20 shots. He lost his shutout when Reijo Ruotsalainen scored for the Rangers with 6:56 remaining in the game.
Pittsburgh 4, Boston 3--Defensemen Moe Mantha and Doug Bodger scored third-period goals at Pittsburgh, enabling the Penguins to pull into a tie for fourth place with the Rangers in the Patrick Division.
Bodger earlier had two assists as a sellout crowd of 16,033 cheered the play of the Penguin defense. The Penguins permitted the Bruins only 20 shots on goal in 60 minutes.
Toronto 5, Detroit 4--The Red Wings and Maple Leafs are two of the worst teams in the league. But, in this game at Detroit, they had their share of excitement. Peter Ihnacak scored his sixth goal of the season, this one with just three seconds remaining, to give Toronto the win.
Detroit had a 4-0 lead when Don Edwards took over in goal for Ken Wregget at 5:41 of the second period. Edwards stopped 24 shots the rest of the way and was rewarded with the victory.
St. Louis 9, Chicago 6--Greg Paslawski scored three goals at St. Louis, two of them during a five-goal Blues' outburst in the first 8:54 of the second period.
The second period opened with the score tied, 3-3, but before it was half over, Murray Bannerman was replaced by Bob Sauve.
Minnesota 6, Winnipeg 5--Steve Payne scored his second goal of the game early in the third period at Winnipeg, and it was the decisive goal for the North Stars.
Payne, who missed the first 29 games of the season because of knee surgery, has three goals in five games.
The Jets, who had the fourth-best record in the league last season, are nine victories and 14 points behind their 1984-85 pace.