Washington — In Montreal the jury is still out on the biggest hockey trade of the decade. In Washington the jury is in, and has found for the defense. Last September the proud Canadiens, having been ousted from the playoffs in the first round for the second season in a row, dealt Brian Engblom and Rod Langway, the best defensive combination in the game, to the Washington Capitals for Ryan Walter, a hard-checking, high-scoring young winger. Other players were involved, but those were the central figures, and not since Boston shipped Phil Esposito to New York has there been such furor.
The Canadiens' theory was that Walter would play on a line with a sagging Guy Lafleur and stimulate a Lafleur revival. Walter is the Canadiens' best scorer and gives them a leg up on the future, but so far has been unable to revive Lafleur.
Once the National Hockey League's leading scorer and MVP, Lafleur is no longer as sharp, either scoring goals or making plays. The fine edge has gone off his game.
Meanwhile, in the nation's capital, Engblom and Langway have given Washington overnight defense. The Caps have gone from being one of the most porous defensive teams in the NHL to being one of the most steadfast.
Not only have they already made the playoffs for the first time, they are pushing the Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders for second place in the powerful Patrick Division. Home ice for the Washington-Islander playoff series is at stake this month.
Coach Bryan Murray's Christmas present was a 14-game unbeaten streak by his expansion team.
''With our defense playing so solidly, I'd expect to top that streak before having a long losing streak,'' he says. ''We're no longer giving up the cheap goals. We'll lose some hockey games, but I don't think we'll have any more of those horrible slumps.''
Says winger Mike Gartner, ''Our offensive capabilities have always been there. We used to score three goals and lose 5-3 or 6-3. Now we can score three goals and win. When we were losing all the time, I kept telling myself I was building character. I'm glad I don't have to build character anymore.''
The key to Washington's resurgence is Langway, a rangy, cool-thinking 25 -year-old who is the team captain.
''It took a commanding player to tighten up that defense,'' says Bill Chadwick, the Hall of Fame referee who is still a close observer of the NHL. ''Langway won a few games for them and gave them the feeling that's the way life is supposed to be. He's a great defensive defenseman, and that's a rarity nowadays.''
In one recent sequence against the New York Rangers, Langway blocked a screaming shot, swatted the loose puck out of the air away from the goal, then knocked down a Ranger forward who was free in front of the net - all in the space of a few seconds. Washington was out of trouble and on the offensive.
His breakout passes are quick and sure, and he shoots the puck like a laser beam from the point when opportunity calls. Engblom, an all-star last season, carries the puck well and gives focus to the offense, but Langway holds the defense together and is playing up to 40 minutes a game.
''I split them up to give our defense more balance,'' says Murray, the coach. ''They were dynamite together in Montreal, but this way we have two strong defensive combinations. Langway may be the most underrated player in the NHL, and he's a fine captain.''
Langway has risen to his new responsibility, and doesn't seem to miss Montreal. For one thing, he was tired of paying income taxes both to the Canadian and US governments.
''You could say it's tough leaving a great tradition like Montreal's,'' he says, ''but I was very positive about the move from the start. I'm in a position of leadership here, and that's helped me grow.''
His larger role is evident on the ice, where he calms his teammates after they squander a two-man advantage on a power play, or calmly controls the puck when the action starts to become too frenetic. It also is evident, according to his teammates, in the locker room.
''He's very vocal, very exuberant, very assured,'' says defenseman Randy Holt , who often pairs with Langway, ''Before this year we'd come up against the good teams, and deep down we'd figure we were going to lose. Now when we play those teams, Rod tells us how he and the Canadiens beat them, and convinces us we can too. He's given us a lot more confidence and poise.''
Langway is quick to deflect praise toward his teammates, especially goaltender Al Jensen.
''He's always there when we need him. He's kept us in games; he's been the difference many nights. He's just always there.''
The same can be said of Langway, who makes sure the Caps' suddenly fearsome defense never rests.