Washington has traveled a long way to play two games this weekend, and those two games will be played in a span of just over 24 hours, then the Caps will return home to play yet another game, some 40 hours after landing in D.C.
Every NHL team’s schedule has its rugged patches, and the Caps are in the midst of one of theirs. Washington is in the middle of a run in which it plays five games in eight nights, and the third and fourth of those contests are on the road on consecutive nights, a couple of time zones away from the District.
The Caps arrived in Phoenix last night and will play the 11-4-2 Coyotes (7-0-1 at home) here tonight. Immediately after the game, they’ll travel to Denver to face the 13-2 Colorado Avalanche (7-2 at home) in the rarified, mile high altitude. Then it’s back home for a one-game stop to face Columbus at Verizon Center on Tuesday night. After that game against the Blue Jackets the Caps will finally have a chance to exhale; they’ll have a two-day gap before their next game, a quick jaunt to Detroit to face the Red Wings.
In preparation for Saturday’s game against the Coyotes, the Caps held an 8:30 a.m. skate today, an odd timing for them. The game tonight is at 6 p.m. local time, also an odd time. Since the trip out west is so short and so tightly jammed with games and travel, the idea seems to be to trick the body into believing it is still on Eastern time.
“I really don’t think too much about it,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “The schedule is what it is. Six o’clock is an odd game time for us, but it’s almost better to be thrown into the fire like this with a couple odd games. If you come out and have a day to get adjusted and then you have another day off to get adjusted, sometimes it can mess you up a little bit.
“Personally, I’d rather come out and just bang-bang play back-to-back games. Sometimes you feel better in back-to-back games, I know it sounds odd but sometimes you can. You just keep the momentum rolling. For us as a winning hockey club right now, that’s what we want to do.”
The Caps haven’t faced Phoenix in nearly two years, and they’ve not been here in the desert since Feb. 14, 2011. They’ll be facing a Phoenix team that features an active defense; three Phoenix blueliners have double-digit point totals this season.
“Yeah, they’ve got points, but they wait for the opportunity,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of the Coyotes’ defense corps. “They’re not gambling. I didn’t see gambling in their game. They’re still trying to protect their own net.
“They give up a lot of goals, a lot of chances, they’ve got Mike Smith there, who is a great goalie. And yeah, it seems to me lately they’re trying to wait for the opportunity to join the rush and make that play, just like we ask from our [defense].”
A day after Caps left wing and elder statesman Jason Chimera signed a two-year contract extension with the Caps, Oates recalled his days as Chimera’s teammate in Edmonton during the 2003-04 season, Oates’ final campaign as a player in the NHL.
“His skating was there from day one,” says Oates of Chimera. “As you mature in the league, you have to be able to learn the game as well. I think he has done a good job of that. You see over the years, he went to Columbus and had a really good year under [Ken Hitchcock], who demands good decisions with the puck, and not just from skating. You can’t just rely on your skating; you’ve got to be able to play, too. I think he has grown as a player, and there is still room to grow.”
The speedy Chimera and the much less speedy Oates were actually linemates for a time that season.
“I felt bad for him,” recalls Oates. “He was in a rocket ship and I was in a wheelchair. It was a tough situation playing for him.”