Heading into the third game of their current five-game road tour tonight against the Flames in Calgary, the Washington Capitals have a lot of good things going on. They’re gunning for their fourth straight win tonight in Calgary. Their power play unit (29.7%) and their penalty-killing outfit (88.2%) both rank second in the league heading into Saturday’s slate of NHL activity. And Washington has scored eight goals in two games on this road trip, netting seven of those tallies at even strength.
If there’s one area of Washington’s game that is still lacking, it’s probably the team’s play in the first period of games. Ten games into the 2013-14 season, Washington has yet to author an authoritative first 20 minutes in any game this season.
“The first 20 minutes is the biggest 20 of the game as far as I’m concerned,” says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “It has a ton to do with preparation. You can tell that the team that prepares better is the one that comes our harder in the first period. We have to improve on that. That’s one thing that the leadership core in here has to make sure that we’re doing better, to make sure that we’re one of the best teams in the league at that.”
Washington has scored just five goals in the first period while surrendering nine in the first 10 games of the season. Some of the first periods in which Washington has come out even, they’ve merely survived rather than thrived.
“We still haven’t figured that out,” admits Caps coach Adam Oates. “Our starts have not been great. We were a little bit better the other night [in Edmonton]; and they’re a good team too, and that’s where [Holtby] was huge for us. You’ve got to give the other team their waves in the game. We talked about it, and if we can get off to a little bit better start, that would be great.”
Speaking of great, if the Caps can manage to pull a pair of points from tonight’s Hockey Night in Canada tilt, they’ll have put together a rather historic stretch for themselves. With wins in Winnipeg and Edmonton to start the trip, the Capitals have already earned their first two consecutive wins in multiple cities outside the Eastern time zone on the same road trip since Jan. 13-16, 2006.
Only Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin remain with the team from the active roster at that time; the two had their rookie dinner on that trip in Phoenix between those two games.
“I’m almost ashamed that that’s a fact, that it’s been that long,” says Laich. “Because I think that the sign of a really good hockey team is one that can win on the road, they can win on back-to-back nights on the road, with the travel. It just means that their team game is that solid that they can rely on each other to win.
“It’s sort of saddening that we haven’t done it in eight or nine years. But I think this team is certainly different. This team is deeper than we’ve had before and more experienced, certainly. I think our core guys are older and maybe know how to handle the travel and the rest a little bit more. I think our coaches look at the schedule a little bit more and give us some easier days when we need them, realizing that energy for games is more important than energy for practice. I think a lot of factors come into it, but I’m certainly glad that we ended that streak.”
A win on Saturday in Calgary would give the Caps three straight wins on the same trip outside the Eastern time zone for the first time since Feb. 7-10, 2001.
As was the case on Thursday in Edmonton and as will be the case on Monday in Vancouver, the Caps are facing a Calgary team that is playing its first game back home after a long road trip tonight.
The Flames went 1-4 on their recently ended tour.
“It can go either way,” says Laich, in referencing that first game back home after a long trip. “Some teams are really excited to be home and play in front of their home fans. Maybe the road trip has been tough and they’re looking for a breath of fresh air. Or the other way, maybe they change their game. Maybe they had a solid road game and they kept it simple and now they’re in front of their fans and they’re looking to do a little too much. [Maybe ] their defensemen activate a little too much and their forwards cheat a little bit.
“We’re aware of that, but we just want to keep the structure and control the pace of the game.