Mike Gartner turned 25 shortly after the start of his sixth NHL season. He had been remarkably consistent in his first five seasons, missing a total of 10 games, scoring 35-48 goals and recording 68-94 points. He was about to take an upward turn, and he sensed it early on in the season.
“I feel I’m coming into my prime,” said Gartner in the Nov. 25, 1984 edition of The Hockey News. “Turning 25, I’m reaching my peak physically and I’m maturing as a hockey player. It’s taken me this long to get a feel for the league and what I can do personally. The next few years, I should be able to contribute more, scoring wise.”
Gartner believed his preseason experience with the 1984 Canada Cup team helped prepare him for his best NHL season.
“After the 1981 Canada Cup when I was the last player cut, I had my worst season offensively,” he admitted. “Maybe this season will be my best season. The Canada Cup really helped my confidence.
“I’ve learned to handle the puck better. Playing with that caliber of competition, I learned by watching other players and how they handled the puck, the moves they made. It’s still an area where I can improve, because I still don’t feel 100 percent comfortable along the boards in our end.”
Gartner might have been capable of doing more offensively with Washington in those first five years, but Caps’ coach Bryan Murray favored a defensive style of hockey. Ever the team player, Gartner sacrificed his own personal goals for the good of the team, to good effect. The Caps made their first two Stanley Cup playoff appearances in Murray’s first two full seasons behind the bench. In 1983-84, they recorded a franchise record 101 points.
Now, Murray and Caps GM David Poile decided that Washington needed an offensive jolt. Murray opted to unshackle Gartner, and to pair him consistently with young and dynamic center Bobby Carpenter.
“I talked with Bryan Murray and David Poile and they said they wanted me to score more goals,” said Gartner in the December issue of Capitals Good Times. “That’s an area in which we need some help.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a good two-way player, but this year I’ve concentrated more on my offense. That’s my prime concern. It’s my role and I’ve had to accept it. I’m trying to get as many goals as I can. So far, I feel like I’m playing well and helping the team.”
A six-game winning streak in late November and early December boosted the Caps above .500, and the team was – like Gartner himself – remarkably consistent the rest of the way. Washington lost three straight in March, 1985, its longest drought without collecting a standings point all season.
“We asked him to be more aggressive offensively,” said Murray of Gartner. “We wanted him to try and make things happen. We’ve never had any problems with his effort. We just wanted him to upgrade certain parts of his game. So far, he’s done just that.”
With Gartner (the fourth overall choice in the 1979 NHL Entry Draft) and Carpenter (the third overall choice in 1981) playing on the same line, the Caps’ top two offensive weapons were together. Local wags christened them “The Goal Dust Twins.”
Murray had tried playing them together previously, but it wasn’t until 1984-85 that the twosome clicked consistently.
“It took a couple of years of them playing together, breaking them up and trying to play them together,” noted Murray in the Feb. 15, 1985 edition of The Hockey News. “They weren’t that good the first 10 or 12 games this season, but they’ve really come on.
“Mike has great speed and he has to get the puck. Bobby didn’t do that before. But Bobby has matured as a player. Not only is he a great goal scorer, but he’s much more creative. Mike is improving, he’s finishing better and he’s getting the puck in better situations. A lot of that is because of Bobby.”
The 21-year-old Carpenter was also in the midst of his best NHL campaign. He played 18 seasons in the league, but never before or after did he approach the 53-goal, 95-point season he posted in ’84-85.
“A couple of years ago, there were a few times when we didn’t score and we had a lot scored against us,” said Carpenter. “A coach sees that and he feels he has to change something.
“Also, we often had checking lines thrown against us. Now, teams are putting their best line against us, talent on talent, and me and Mike skate better than a lot of other players. Even at home, Bryan is playing us against the best. And when we run into a checking line, now we have enough confidence that we’re able to overcome it.”
Gartner had 48 goals as an NHL sophomore in 1980-81, but the Caps had a poor season and missed the playoffs again. Now he was threatening to reach 50 goals for the first time and playing on a strong team.
“Ever since Bobby came here, we realize they’ve wanted us to play together,” said Gartner. “It hasn’t worked out all that well before. Both of us were the type of player that needed the puck all the time. I was a winger who needed his centerman to give him the puck. He was a center who needed his wingers to feed him the puck.
Gartner was also quick to heap some praise on the third member of the line, the late Gaetan Duchesne.
“Gaetan has helped us both out; he’s an ideal winger to play with us,” said Gartner. “He’s strong along the boards in our end zone and he gets the puck up to Bobby a lot. He’s also the third man back and we can take our chances and know he’ll take care of the other end.”
Gartner notched only one of his 13 career hat tricks with the Caps in 1984-85, but he kept the steady stream of scoring going all season. He scored his 40th and 41st goals at New York against the Rangers on Feb. 28.
“There’s no such thing as a routine 40-goal season,” he said afterwards. “There are 17 games left and, so far, this has been my best year for statistics, if you measure it that way. We’ll try to keep it going.”
Carpenter wasn’t too caught up in his gaudy offensive numbers, either.
“The only thing that means anything to me right now is to hold on to finish first in the Patrick Division,” Carpenter said in the Feb. 16, 1985 edition of The Washington Post. “It would be a big thing to the people of Washington, something really special. You can score 50 goals and get lots of publicity, but if we win the Patrick Division, everyone will be recognized for it. It’s a team thing and this team is a lot more than me and Mike.
“We get more chances than some of the other guys because Bryan gives us more freedom offensively. But some nights we don’t score and the other guys are always there to pick up the load.
“All we have to do is stay healthy and we should finish first. Then, if we play on top of our game, stay away from injuries and get some luck, you never know. You’ve got to have luck to win the Stanley Cup.”
History will show that the Caps did not win the Patrick Division (they finished 12 points behind Philadelphia) or the Stanley Cup (they were ousted in the first round by the Islanders, again) that season, but the duo of Gartner and Carpenter and the rest of that stalwart squad helped put some passion into the local hockey landscape.
It wasn’t hard for Gartner to notice the difference.
“The first year (1979-80), I remember going to a shopping mall to sign autographs and not signing any in a two-hour period,” he recalled. “Now a lot more people show up.”
On April 7, 1985, Gartner became the 43rd player in NHL history to notch 50 goals in a season, doing so in dramatic fashion, in the Caps’ final game of the season. He added two assists to raise his point total to 102 and join Dennis Maruk as just the second player in franchise history to reach the 100-point plateau.
“I’m very happy the way everything worked out,” he said after that game. “It’s a special thrill for me that it happened on Easter, although it pales in comparison to the holiday we celebrate. It’s probably more a thrill for my mom and dad, because they were here to see it, and for my wife, who’s been trying to put a little extra pressure on me the last few days.
“I owe a lot to my teammates. They’ve been trying to set me up for five games. They’ve been passing up empty-net shots to feed me.”
Gartner finished fourth in balloting for postseason all-star positioning. Edmonton’s Jari Kurri, the Islanders’ Mike Bossy and Philadelphia’s Tim Kerr finished ahead of the Caps’ classy right wing. Gartner received a total of three second-place and 14 third-place votes from members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.