From December of 2007 through the end of the 2010-11 season, the Washington Capitals were one of the best road teams in the NHL. The Caps won more than half of their games away from Verizon Center during that span, going 82-48-21 in a stretch of 151 road games over a span of nearly four full seasons.
Since then, the Caps have had more than their share of difficulty on the road. Going into Thursday night’s game with the Hurricanes in Raleigh, the Caps were 19-28-5 during their previous 52 road dates, dating back to the start of the 2011-12 season.
What makes the team’s recent road performance problematic is Washington’s place in the standings – tied for 12th in the Eastern Conference after Thursday’s road win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh – and what looms ahead for the Caps in terms of their schedule. Beginning with last night’s game in Raleigh, the Capitals opened a stretch in which they’ll play six of their next seven and seven of their next 11 games on the road.
Clearly, they’ll need to have some serious success on the road during the next few weeks in order to ascend the Eastern Conference standings ladder.
“To make the playoffs, you have to do that,” said Caps coach Adam Oates before last night’s 3-2 road win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh. “Teams have to do that. [The Hurricanes] came into our barn the other night and beat us. We have to figure out a way to do it tonight. Then we’ve got Boston, then we’ve got Buffalo at home and then we’ve got a lot of tough games; twice in a row in Winnipeg. It’s no different than always; it’s just a little more crammed right now.”
Thursday’s win in Raleigh lifted the Caps’ road record to 4-7-1 on the season, and all four of those wins have come in Washington’s last seven road games (4-3). All four of Washington’s road wins have also come against fellow Southeast Division denizens; the Capitals are 0-6-1 in road games against the rest of the Eastern Conference clubs this season.
“It’s big because half of the games that are left in the season are on the road,” said Caps right wing Troy Brouwer before the Carolina game. “In this next little bunch here we’re going to have to find ways to get points. We’ve had success within our division, but tonight we need to get two points, we need to get a win because we’re going on a long road trip here. We need to get a win tonight. It will go a long ways towards trying to get into the playoffs.”
Last night’s win ended a three-game skid, and Washington is not in a position where it can afford to be losing games in chunks. Thursday’s road win also marked the third time this season that the Caps have rebounded from a deficit after 40 minutes to take two points in a game, and two of those three instances have occurred on the road. Only Edmonton and Anaheim (four each) have won more games when trailing after 40 minutes than Washington has this season.
During their run to the playoffs last season, the Caps went 6-3-1 in their final 10 road games. When they snuck into the playoffs on the final weekend of the 2007-08 season, the Caps were helped immensely by winning seven of their last nine road games (7-2), a stretch that included the team’s longest road trip of the season. Washington was 5-1 on a six-game trip that stretched from March 18-29, 2008.
Previous playoff drives have been fueled by late-season road surges. This year’s model has shown the ability to come from behind, and it did so again last night in Carolina. But Washington’s best road performance of the season likely came in Winnipeg two Saturdays ago, a game in which the Caps played a textbook game of road hockey en route to a 3-0 win.
“If we can look at the script of the Winnipeg game,” says Caps left wing Matt Hendricks, “that would be a good one to look at. I think we came out, we played well, we got the lead, we shut their fans down and we took some energy out of the building. If we could do that every time, that would be great.
“But I think we just need to stay upbeat. If we get down by a goal it seems like we get down on ourselves and our confidence might be lacking a little bit. I think we need to be upbeat. We need to realize, ‘Hey, we can come back against anybody. We proved it against Boston. We can play these games, we can play from behind, but let’s play ahead. Let’s focus on coming out and getting a lead.’”