The Capitals will need every ounce of the confidence gained from Thursday night’s come-from-behind, gutsy win against the Wild when they head west this weekend to face the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche.
At 12-2-0, Colorado has won the second-most games in the NHL so far this season, and sits second in the Western Conference standings. Phoenix isn’t far behind at 11-4-2, fifth in the West with a point total (24) that would have the Coyotes atop the Eastern Conference standings.
But beyond the challenge of two top-notch opponents, the Capitals face a strange and potentially arduous travel schedule, which kicks off with an 8:30 a.m. MST skate Saturday morning and a 8:00 p.m. MST game in Phoenix Saturday night before an hour-plus flight to Denver and its altitude for another early skate and 8 p.m. game.
Capitals Coach Adam Oates said he opted for the early skate because of the tendency to wake up early the first few days after a trip west, but that ultimately “that’s a guess” as the best route for his team. He said the travel and altitude could “possibly” affect his weekend lineups, and that Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth will likely play a game each in goal.
“Depends on how we do tomorrow night,” Oates said of potential lineup moves. “Hopefully we have a good game tomorrow night, we don’t have to use all of our energy before Colorado, but if it is, we address it when we wake up the next morning.”
So far this season, Western Conference teams like Phoenix and Colorado, as well as league-leading Anaheim and the 10-4-2 San Jose Sharks, have performed much better than their Eastern Conference brethren. Western conference teams have been tough on teams from the East so far this season, owning a 68-27-11 record against them.
“Next year it could be the other way around,” Oates said of the West’s early dominance. “I think there’s some differences. Part of the problem in the West is they travel differently. I think they have more wins and losses based on fatigue than the east… I would say the West [plays] a bit more open. We have a lot more teams that grind on the boards, and I think that factors into the travel.”
This weekend’s West Coast swing and others like it pose another challenge to Oates and, in particular, the Capitals’ more inexperienced players: Because of last season’s strike-shortened schedule, the Capitals didn’t face Western Conference competition, so for many players — not just rookies like Nate Schmidt, Michael Latta and Tom Wilson — new-look rosters and unfamiliar faces could require some in-game adjustments.
But Washington will see at least one familiar face this weekend, that of Coyotes center Mike Ribeiro, who played 48 games for the Capitals last season before signing a four-year, $22 million dollar deal with Phoenix in the offseason.
“It was always fun to play your old team, said Oates, who played for seven teams in his 19-year career. “Kind of butterflies and there’ll be some smiles with the guys in warm-ups I’m sure and nods. Then when the puck drops, hopefully we beat him.”