Wayne Gretzky returned to action for a key game between Edmonton and Smythe Division leader Calgary Friday night at Edmonton, and played brilliantly.
The incomparable center made an assist in his second shift on the ice and paced the Oiler attack throughout, but the Flames, stretching their division lead to five points, gained an important 5-4 victory.
Gretzky, playing with a special brace on his knee, assisted on all four Edmonton goals. But Hakan Loob led the charge of the determined Flames.
Loob's 30th goal in the middle of the second period gave the Flames a 3-1 lead. Then, he and Mike Bullard scored early in the final period to assure the Flames of the win.
The Flames prevailed although their No. 1 goaltender, Mike Vernon, was handed a game misconduct penalty at the end of the second period, and rookie Doug Dadswell had to be brought in for the last period.
Gretzky set up two third-period goals against the rookie goalie to bring the Oilers close with eight minutes left, but Dadswell made some big saves to preserve the lead.
Gretzky severely strained a ligament in his right knee in the Oilers' 6-0 victory over Philadelphia Dec. 30. At first, it was thought he would miss only a couple of games.
Instead, he was out for 13 games. The Oilers were 5-4-4 without the perennial scoring champion and fell out of their accustomed spot atop the division.
Moreover, Gretzky fell 19 points behind Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh in the scoring race.
Gretzky started skating again last weekend, and Thursday night he said he was ready to play.
"I don't know if I can catch Lemieux in the scoring race," Gretzky said. "The knee really feels pretty good."
In the first two periods, Gretzky did not see much ice time, but in the final period he was on the ice more than half the time in a desperate effort to get at least a tie.
Now 15 points behind Lemieux, Gretzky has 28 games remaining, while Lemieux has 29.
The Flames, with 69 points, have the most victories (31) and the best record in the National Hockey League.
Washington 4, Montreal 3--Just eight years ago, Dave Christian was one of the stars of the United States' victory in the Olympic Winter Games.
Now, he is a standout defensive center for the Capitals.
In this game at Landover, Md., Christian put his considerable talents to work on offense and brought the Capitals a victory.
Christian's second goal of the night came with just 90 seconds remaining to break a 3-3 tie.
His winning goal came 26 seconds after Montreal's Mats Naslund took a pass at center ice from defenseman Larry Robinson and skated in alone on goalie Pete Peeters. Naslund faked left and flipped the puck over Peeters' right pad.
It was the second time in the final four minutes that Christian had put the Capitals ahead. His 23rd goal made it 3-2 before Naslund's breakaway.
New York Islanders 5, Buffalo 2--The Islanders had not won a game on the road since Dec. 4, while the Sabres had lost only once at home in their last seven.
But Mikko Makela and Derek King scored nine seconds apart in the second period at Buffalo to end the Islanders' slump on the road.
The Islanders, who had been 0-10-1 away from home since their last victory, won although they never had a power-play opportunity.
Billy Smith was spectacular in the nets for the Islanders, who moved within three points of Philadelphia, the Patrick Division leader.
Smith gave up a power-play goal to Dave Andreychuk early in the second period. Before he yielded the other goal, the Islanders had scored five goals.
New Jersey 3, Chicago 2--There were only 17 seconds left in overtime at East Rutherford, N.J., so Craig Wolanin of the Devils fired in desperation from outside the blue line. The puck bounced off the glove of goaltender Bob Mason and caromed into the net.
The surprise finish gave Jim Schoenfeld a 2-0 record since replacing Doug Carpenter as coach of the Devils last Tuesday.
Before the winning goal, goaltenders Mason and the Devils' Bob Sauve had dominated play since the middle of the second period, when Steve Larmer of the Blackhawks tied the game, 2-2.
Denis Savard of the Blackhawks opened the scoring less than three minutes into the game. It was his 30th goal, the seventh consecutive season in which he has scored at least that many.
Toronto 3, Detroit 3--The Maple Leafs, who ended a 15-game winless streak with a victory over the Kings Wednesday night, almost started another one in this game at Detroit.
Ed Olczyk intercepted a clearing pass and scored with just three seconds left in regulation to get Toronto the tie.
With 19,873 at Joe Louis Arena for the hockey game, and 61,983 at nearby Pontiac for the Pistons' basketball game, it was a big night for sports in the Detroit area.
The Red Wings went into the final period behind the steady goaltending of Glen Hanlon with a 2-0 lead. But the Maple Leafs scored twice before the period was four minutes old to get even.
With 8:05 left in regulation, Brent Ashton's wrist shot beat goalie Allan Bester on the glove side.
Time was running out when Hanlon tried to clear the puck. After intercepting, Olczyk had an open net for the tying goal.
Hartford 4, Vancouver 2--Carey Wilson, in his best performance since the Whalers obtained him from Calgary a couple of weeks ago, had two goals and an assist at Vancouver.
In between two goals by Tony Tanti, the Whalers scored four times. The Canucks missed a chance to move into fourth place in the Smythe Division.