For an NHL club, the prospect of a looming five-game road trip doesn’t always hold much appeal. The Washington Capitals are an exception to that dictum; they open a five-game tour in Winnipeg against the Jets tonight and they’re actually pretty excited to be heading out of town for the next 10 days or so.
The Capitals are coming off an underwhelming five-game homestand in which they posted a 2-3 mark. The Caps have played six of their first eight games this season on home ice, logging a pedestrian 3-3 mark in those games.
Long homestands don’t seem to agree much with the Capitals of recent vintage. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Washington has had four homestands of five games in length. The Caps are a mere 10-8-2 (.550 points percentage) combined on those four lengthy homestands. In the rest of its home games over the same timespan, the Capitals have been dominant on the Verizon Center sheet, going 118-36-20 for a lofty .736 points percentage.
Washington is tied for the fewest road games played in the league thus far, and the Caps are one of just three teams in the circuit still seeking their first road win.
After spending the last 15 days at home, the Capitals were more than ready to climb aboard the bird and depart the District on Monday.
“To be honest with you, I am kind of missing road games,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “It’s always nice to play at home, but there’s too much going on here and you just want to go on the road, spend the time at the hotel and enjoy it.”
Washington managed to defeat Columbus 4-1 in the homestand finale to salvage a couple of points and send themselves out on the road on a winning note.
“I think it will be good for us,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green. “We had Saturday’s game for our points, but we haven’t had such a great home record so far so maybe it’s good for us to get out on the road and give us a chance to gel as a group, get some wins and come back. I think the guys are excited to be honest with you.”
Factor in the fact that a large portion of Washington’s traveling crew hails from or has ties to western Canada – where the Caps will play the first four games of the current trip – and you can understand why the Caps are a little more amped than usual to be hitting the road, even though it’s for their longest trip of the season.
Asked if he still gets as fired up to play in front of the home folks in western Canada, Karl Alzner was unequivocal.
“Absolutely,” says Alzner. “I don’t think that will ever change. I can’t see it changing as long as I am playing out in the East. It’s just so much fun to go there. The rinks are great, the ice is great, the family is always there to watch and that’s what we really love.
“I was never one of the guys who always had a lot of family and friends at the games. I always kept them away because I’d get a little too nervous. But now that they’re all wanting to come, it’s nice to have them there. I don’t see myself losing that excitement of going out west anytime soon.”
Alzner hails from British Columbia – as do forwards Troy Brouwer and Aaron Volpatti – and he played his junior hockey in Calgary. Green is a Calgary native, as is center Jay Beagle. Brooks Laich and Braden Holtby are from Saskacthewan. Eric Fehr is a Manitoba native. Schmidt is from Minnesota, just a few hours south of here. Jason Chimera is from Edmonton, and he started his NHL career with the Oilers. Volpatti and Fehr have both played professionally in Winnipeg. Martin Erat played junior hockey in the WHL, skating for both Saskatoon and Red Deer.
Caps head coach Adam Oates wound up his NHL playing career in Edmonton. Caps general manager George McPhee was once the assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe is a Calgary native; he formerly served as both an assistant coach and assistant GM for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. Caps goaltending coach Olie Kolzig spent many of his formative years in British Columbia and played junior hockey for Tri-City. Kolzig is now a co-owner of the Tri-City Americans. Finally, Caps’ strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish hails from Winnipeg.
“It seems like forever,” says Green, of the Caps’ last trip out this way. “What was it, two or three years since we’ve been there? We had a pretty good game last time we were [in Calgary], so hopefully we can continue that. But it’s always good to see the family and the friends. Everyone is going to be there.”
Green's memory is good. The Caps' last visit to Calgary was nearly three years ago, on Oct. 30, 2010. Washington skated off with a 7-2 win on a Hockey Night in Canada Stage.
The Capitals’ only two road games to date were in Chicago and Dallas. They’ll play Western Conference foes Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver to start this trip. Early next month, Washington visits Phoenix and Denver. By the time the season is six weeks old, the Capitals will have played more than half (eight of 14) of their road games against Western Conference clubs and more than half of their games outside their time zone this season.
“As much as how tough the game is these days,” says Green, “the traveling is just as bad. Being able to get these coast trips to the other conference out of the way is huge for us. Later in the season we’ll have trips where we’re close to home and we’ll have more nights in our own beds.”
Alzner doesn’t necessarily see it the same way.
“I’m not sure if there is an advantage to that,” he says. “Maybe because that you get to see the East a little bit more towards the end and see what everybody’s working with before the playoffs. And you don’t have to worry about the travel.
“At the same time I think it’s kind of nice to be able to go out there and see something new. If you go to California, you get to have a whole different attitude and get almost a break from winter. With the Olympic break, I don’t know because that’s going to give us a lot of time off. I don’t know how it’s going to affect us. It’s always fun going out there regardless of if it’s at the beginning [of the season] or at the end. I just hope that we can go out there and win a few games because we don’t typically do very well out that way.”
The core of this Washington team has been together for several seasons now, and they’ve spent plenty of time on the road together. But for newcomers such as Mikhail Grabovski and for rookies like Tom Wilson and Nate Schmidt who are on their first extended road trips as NHLers, this provides a chance for their teammates to integrate them more firmly into the fabric of the club.
“We need that,” says Alzner, of the bonding time a lengthy trip provides. “Our schedule is good and bad. It’s good because we can sleep in our beds a lot, but it’s bad because we don’t get much opportunity for that team bonding.
“A lot of fun memories happen on the road. When you get to spend two days in a city, you get to go out do stuff as a group. You can go out for a nice dinner and hang out later than say 9:30, 10 o’clock. That’s where a lot of memories happen and guys open up and you get to know your teammates a lot better. We’ll get to stay over in Vancouver, and that is going to be good for this team. We’ve been around each other for a long time but we need to have some more time together away from the rink. The season is a grind so you don’t have good opportunities all the time.
“We do have an opportunity here where we can get away and forget about what’s happening. We’re playing in some fun buildings and fun cities against some teams we know we can beat. It’s about time we turn it around and get into the win column.”