The Washington Capitals embark Tuesday on a nomadic journey of sorts, playing six consecutive games away from Verizon Center over the course of the next 12 days.
While the Capitals endure their longest road stretch of the season, their home arena will be bustling, first with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and then the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus for the eighth straight year — scheduling arrangements in place before owner Ted Leonsis purchased Verizon Center and the Wizards from the estate of the late Abe Pollin.
If it had been up to him, though, Leonsis said he likely would have agreed to hosting the special events — even if it meant sending the Capitals on the road with playoff seeding or eligibility potentially hanging in the balance, or making the woeful Wizards play seven of their next eight on the road.
“The mortgage of the building is in the number one position of priority,” Leonsis said in a recent interview. “So concerts and horse shows and the NCAA tournament are really important to us because they help us pay the mortgage on the down days. It’s a balancing act, but I probably would have agreed to the NCAAs and this upcoming schedule.”
Only four of the Capitals’ 12 remaining regular season games will be played at home, and while this six-game stretch is not a traditional road trip — the team will return to Washington at least once to practice — the string of consecutive road games beats their longest homestand of four contests in December.
“I think our schedule has been fair,” Leonsis said. “Even though this is a six-game road trip, it’s really three and then we come home [to practice], and we were very conscious of that.”
Washington isn’t the only team in the Eastern Conference that will rack up the frequent flyer miles in the final stretch. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay only play five of their remaining games at home. Of the top six teams in the East, only Boston plays more than half of its remaining contests at home, with eight of 14 games at TD Garden.
This will be the second prolonged period away from Chinatown in the last month for the Capitals, though. The most games they’ve played consecutively at home this season is four and they’ve had four three-game homestands with one yet to come. Leonsis said part of the reason the Capitals haven’t had a lengthy home stretch — one like the 12 straight games Tampa Bay played at home beginning in late January — is because they’ve become a hot ticket and thus are one of the NHL’s more flexible teams to schedule.
“We used to want to play as much as we could on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but because we’re sold out, weeknight games aren’t a monetary concern to us anymore,” Leonsis said. “Certain teams can say they want to play more games on the road at the start of the season because they’re in a football town and so on, but we’ve become an easier team to schedule now that we own both teams and since we sell out.”
Leonsis said he and Capitals officials keep a close eye on the scheduling to make sure the team isn’t placed at a competitive disadvantage. A Georgetown basketball game on Jan. 8 was moved to 11 a.m. to make sure there was adequate time to prepare the ice surface for the Capitals’ game that night against Florida. In a more preemptive sense, Leonsis said, team officials try to plan for one large trip to the West Coast and avoid back-to-back games with time zone changes or road trips that would give them a disadvantage upon returning home.
“We don’t like coming off of a road trip and playing a home game where the visiting team is here sleeping and we’re traveling back and getting home at 2 [in the morning],” Leonsis said. “We think our home fans deserve us to be rested and ready to go, but we know we’re in a league and we want to be fair.”
The Capitals appear to have hit a stride during the eight-game winning streak they will carry into Montreal on Tuesday. Washington sits in second place in the Eastern Conference with 90 points, just one behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
Add to that the Capitals’ improved play recently partly began on the road — they are 9-3-0 in their last 12 games away from Verizon Center — and being away from home may not be such a bad thing with the playoffs approaching.
“Spending all this time on the road in the games that are left is a great test, and that’s a great way to get your team ready for a playoff mode,” forward Mike Knuble said.
“We get to spend some time together, and I think we’ve had more success on the road and we’re extremely confident in ourselves right now. We’re in a good place right now and I think this will help us keep playing the playoff style hockey that we have been recently.”