July 29, 2014

What makes the Capitals a different team on the road?

The Washington Capitals are 11-5-1 (23 out of a possible 34 points) at home this season in the comfy confines of Verizon Center.  Extrapolated over an 82-game schedule, that translates into an 111-point pace.  Only three teams in the Eastern Conference have fewer home losses than the Capitals.  They score 3.23 goals per game at home, good enough to be in the top half-dozen in the league, and  hit on the power play at a 22.6 percent clip (14-for-62), good for third overall in the NHL. 

At home, they are — for the most part – the same old Caps we’ve come to know and love during the Ovechkin era.

When travelling, however, the Caps are worse than pedestrian; they’re downright bad.  At 6-10-1 so far (53-point pace), they have the second most road losses in the East.  They’re averaging 2.58 goals per game away from Verizon Center, in the lower third of the league.  Their road power play is an atrocious 7-for-61 this season (11.5 percent), ahead of only four teams in the entire league. 

The dichotomy detailed in these numbers are staggering.  They are half the team on the road than they are at home.  What could possibly be the cause?

If Caps fans want to take a “glass half-full” outlook to the rest of the season, maybe that’s where the silver lining can be found.  If coach Dale Hunter can figure out how to shake the malaise from his charges’ road game, and find some semblance of competitiveness while travelling, there’s hope yet for the remaining 48 regular season games.

Perhaps that comes with one of the goalies getting hot and stealing a game here and there for the Caps, something that really hasn’t happened since the first seven games of the season.  Both goalies are capable of it, but so far this season neither have seized the opportunity when given the chance. 

Tomas Vokoun, the veteran, expressed frustration the other day when notified he wasn’t starting for the fourth straight game, then played relatively well when called upon to bail out  Michal Neuvirth when the youngster coughed up three goals on Buffalo’s first six shots.  It’s hard to fault Neuvy for any of the goals really.  But sometimes your goalie just has to make a save for you, especially at the beginning of the game when you give up a power play seven seconds in.  That, obviously, didn’t happen.

Whatever the reasons for the Caps failings on road ice, the excuses need to stop.  After the game last night, Hunter told the media the Caps didn’t respond well coming out after the two-day layoff and having to travel the morning of the game.  “After the Christmas break, [the game] is usually decided in the first period,” Hunter said.  “[Buffalo] came out and we made bad decisions with the puck and gave up bad goals and it cost us the game.”

Defenseman Karl Alzner spoke — once again — about the bad habits the Caps fall back into when they travel or when they get down early. 

“Those are habits that need to be broken if you want to be successful and I don’t know how long it takes before enough is enough.  We’ve got to keep watching the tape and hopefully it’s one of those things that clicks and everyone starts to figure it out because you don’t want to go through an entire season winning and losing like this. It’s not very fun.”

It’s not fun to watch, either, Karl.

Forward Matt Hendricks echoed the theme of lack of intensity.  “The common theme we saw in New Jersey and tonight is we can put pressure on when we decide to do it. I don’t think we came out with that mentality or that urgent desire to do those little things, getting pucks deep [and] finishing checks. Stuff that’s going to make their D turn the puck over.”

As I pointed out in a column last week, the Capitals’ biggest opponent this year has been themselves.  They are the same players they’ve always been.  They own the same skill sets.  The organization was universally lauded for their off-season moves.  They won their first seven games of the season, including destroying a very good Detroit team.  On paper, this team has the talent, experience and depth to be a very strong contender.

But they don’t play hockey on paper.  They play hockey on ice, both at home and on the road.  Until they figure out how to play better on road ice, it’s going to be tough to gain points in the standings.  It’s difficult to put a string of wins together if every other game is going to be another negative reinforcement, as last night’s debacle was.

***Quotes for this story were pulled from published sources.

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