After earning a split in New York to start their Eastern Conference semifinal series, it would appear that things are setting up nicely for the Washington Capitals. They return home to Verizon Center as the series against the New York Rangers shifts venues for Games 3 and 4.
But if there’s one thing this spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs have shown, it’s that home ice is an advantage in name only and comes with no guarantees. Road squads are 34-21 this postseason through Monday’s games. Through nine postseason contests, the Capitals are 4-2 on the road and 1-2 at home.
The playoffs are filled with examples of teams excelling on the road, but the Capitals’ results are a little perplexing when considering how they fared in the regular season. They went 26-11-4 at Verizon Center, the third-best home record in the East, but their record on the road was the worst among all playoff-bound teams at 16-21-4.
So for Washington, the easiest way to establish the upper hand against New York may be to take the same approach that’s served them well in hostile buildings of late: focus on remaining patient and stay committed to the game plan.
“Everyone says we have to keep it simple and stay patient,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “I know we’re in front of the home crowd and they may want to see some flash and some dazzle but we have to keep our game the same as we were playing on the road because that’s what’s been successful for us — be patient, defense first, capitalize on our opportunities and just play a solid game.”
The Capitals, who had just 10 road wins through the end of February, started to find some consistency away from home late in the year and captured six victories in the final nine road games of the regular season. That solid play has continued in the playoffs. Washington thrived off the underdog role and played dedicated, straightforward defense to capture three of four games in Boston against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins.
“I think that we’re just paying attention to detail a little bit more. We’re doing whatever it takes, every play, every shift,” defenseman John Carlson said. “Whether it’s guys just getting it in or blocking shots or whatever it is, people are committed to doing that. . . . We’ve had some success on the road, but we need to carry that over to home now.”
At home against Boston, the Capitals occasionally would try to force plays. They would try to be too cute with the puck or allow themselves to get too riled up and abandon the discipline and poise that characterized their strong play on the road.
It’s not a new phenomenon for the team to struggle at home in the postseason. In the seven series they’ve played since Alex Ovechkin joined the team — from 2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers through to this year’s first round against Boston — the Capitals are 11-13 at Verizon Center.
“We’ve just got to remind ourselves: Don’t get fancy. Don’t try to make those extra plays. That is the hardest part of playing at home,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’ve still got a lot of confidence at home. I think that’s still where we play our best hockey. It’ll really help, I think, against the Rangers. They’re a good team on their ice. It’ll be nice to get the crowd behind us so we can get a little bit more momentum.”