The Washington Capitals are becoming most unwelcome visitors throughout the National Hockey League.
Fans in other NHL cities are finding the Capitals boring to watch. Worse, the results have acquired a sameness, too, with the home club usually on the short end.
Nowhere have the Capitals been less accommodating than at the Meadowlands Arena, where they face the New Jersey Devils Saturday afternoon. Washington is unbeaten here, with five victories and three ties, and for that matter never has lost to New Jersey anywhere, compiling a 13-0-4 record.
The Capitals, who have lost one of their last 13 road games, have been 11-5-6 away from home, for 28 points. That is second to Edmonton, which has 29. No other NHL team has more than 22.
Hockey traditionally has been a sport that favors the home team. Many reasons exist for such a situation, from vocal crowds that intimidate players and officials, to familiarity with the bounce of the boards, to the ability to obtain favorable line matchups through the mandated right of last change.
The major drawback for the home team is the necessity to entertain the fans. A defense-oriented club can be popular only in areas such as Washington, where desire for a winner after years of defeat overrides all else. Consequently, most teams open up at home and play more conservatively on the road.
This is true with the Capitals, too, to a certain extent, and it is reflected in the statistics. In home games this season, Washington has averaged 4.45 goals to the opposition's 3.10. On the road, the figures are 3.73 and 2.95.
Basically, though, the Capitals play the same game home and away, requiring only refinement, not adjustment.
The major alterations away from home are in the area of matchups. For example, the Gaetan Duchesne-Doug Jarvis-Bob Gould line shut down Detroit's major offensive threat (John Ogrodnick-Steve Yzerman-Ron Duguay) in a 4-0 victory at Capital Centre Dec. 9. In Detroit Tuesday, the Wings got 11 of their 23 shots and one of their two goals from that trio, which was able to avoid Jarvis and friends.
Washington Coach Bryan Murray deserves considerable credit for moves he has made to diminish the impact of the last change on the road. In St. Louis Wednesday, he used nine different lines in the first period and frequently flopped Duchesne and Bengt Gustafsson to obtain better matchups.
"I took a guy off a line occasionally because I wouldn't give them the matchups they wanted," Murray said. "We had some funny lines out there on occasion, but there was reason for it."
Beyond Murray's superb coaching, there are other reasons for Washington's road success.
"The way we play is always the same," said team captain Rod Langway. "We don't worry about scoring goals. We just try to take care of our end and shut down the other team."
"With our style of play, we're more together on the road," said Mike Gartner. "All we care about is the two points, where at home I think some guys feel they have to put on a show. That shouldn't be our job. We just want to win; it's up to the people above us to get people in the building."
"We're a very patient hockey club on the road," Murray said. "We're more disciplined on the road and we move the puck in our end better. We just try to get the puck out of our end and wait for the breaks.
"If we're fortunate to get into the third period tied, as we were the last two games, we're confident somebody will come up with a big goal."
Pat Riggin, who will guard the Capitals' nets Saturday, has compiled better statistics (8-4-5, 2.88) on the road than at home (7-5-0, 2.98).
Other Capitals with more impressive figures on the road than at home are Dave Christian, with nine goals and 13 assists compared with six and 10; Alan Haworth, 7-6 and 3-11; Doug Jarvis, 5-7 and 3-9; Craig Laughlin, 4-10 and 2-3, and Bengt Gustafsson, 2-8 and 1-7.