SAN JOSE —After a third day here in Northern California, the Washington Capitals searched for answers to a far too familiar riddle: Why do they continue to struggle away from Verizon Center?
Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavillion marked the Capitals’ fourth loss in their past five road games, their seventh in the last 10. Though Washington has put forth more consistent efforts recently, the team’s inability to withstand the rigors of the road is troublesome.
“I think our effort on the road isn’t quite the same as it is at home,” Troy Brouwer said. “We come out a little tougher, battle a little harder at home and that really needs to change. We have as much skill as any team, but when we’re not working — we’re getting outworked most nights on the road.”
The Capitals are 7-11-1 on the road this season, 3-4-1 under Coach Dale Hunter, and know if they want to move up the Eastern Conference standings, where they sit in 10th place prior to the conclusion of Sunday’s games, they will need to find success away from home.
Against San Jose, the Capitals got off to a rather strong start but couldn’t pull ahead, and they’ve failed to score in the first period of seven straight road games. The Sharks eventually took an initial lead in the second and costly errors in the form of defensive lapses and ill-timed penalties built up to undo Washington’s comeback efforts.
“We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot with little things,” said Joel Ward, who against San Jose recorded his first goal since Nov. 11. “I feel like we’re not managing the game well on the road. At times, you’ve just got to play it on a safer level, when they’re able to match and whatnot. I feel like we haven’t done a great job doing that and it’s hurt us. Sometimes, we try to push it too much, when you can get through a shift, a period then come back at it. That can be the smarter course.”
Maintaining a high level of intensity while avoiding the self-inflicted wounds on the road may be even more key for the Capitals as they move forward. Washington visits Los Angeles on Monday and the team may have to face the Kings without the help of No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom and two-time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green.
Neither Backstrom (head) nor Green (groin) skated Sunday as the Capitals practiced at HP Pavilion. Coach Dale Hunter didn’t offer any update on either player, but the rest of the roster appears to be bracing for the very real possibility that both Backstrom and Green could miss more time.
Backstrom was scratched against the Sharks because of the head injury he suffered when elbowed by Calgary’s Rene Bourque earlier in the week and hasn’t skated in the past two days. It was a sharp contrast to the mood of both the center and Hunter after practice Friday morning in San Jose. At that time, both said they were optimistic that Backstrom might not even miss a game. But since those positive statements, the 24-year-old Swede has not been on the ice.
The extent of Backstrom’s injury is unclear, as is whether he suffered a setback.
“He’s a big part of your team,” Hunter said. “Scoring plus playmaking ability, he creates a lot out there. He’s the leading scorer but he can also play defense. Everyone talks about scoring but as a coach we’re always worried about defense. He kills penalties he knows how to play really well defensively so that hurts us too.”
Green left Saturday’s game in the second period with tightness in his groin and was seen walking with a pronounced limp on Saturday. It was only the second game Green had been in the lineup for after returning from a 23-game absence because of a strained right groin muscle.
Both players are traveling with the team to Los Angeles. But the Capitals understand that given the uncertainty around the status of both Backstrom and Green, there will be additional pressure on the rest of the lineup to pick up the slack.