After struggling to find consistency over the past two weeks at home, the Washington Capitals are glad for a change of scenery as they hit the road for their longest trip of the season.
The Capitals will play their next five games on the road, a stretch that starts with a nine-day, four-game jaunt across Western Canada beginning in Winnipeg on Tuesday night before continuing in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
“We’re going into some tough environments, so we’ve got to be playing good hockey,” Coach Adam Oates said. “But I think one of the things is there’s always a little pressure when you fail early in a game at home, you feel the fans are ready to get on you. On the road, mistakes can happen and it’s easier to let them go.”
The lengthy sojourn comes at an opportune time for Washington as it looks to build off its 4-1 win against Columbus on Saturday.
However, players understand that facing relatively unfamiliar opponents will present challenges of their own.
Thanks to NHL realignment and a redistributed schedule, every team will face all 29 other clubs home and away for the first time since the 2003-04 season. So far, the Western Conference appears to have the advantage in the arrangement.
Eastern Conference squads were a combined 21-32-5 against those from the West prior to Monday’s games.
While Washington is 2-3 against the West, the wins came against the Oilers and Flames, teams it will face on this trip. That reintroduction with Edmonton and Calgary should help when the Capitals stop in each city for the first time in two and three years, respectively.
Washington will have familiarity to fall back on against the Jets, who were in the Southeast before realignment logically moved them to the West.
The Capitals admit they’re not as well versed in the tendencies of Western foes, and the differences between the two conferences’ styles of play make for interesting, often unpredictable matchups.
“The East is a little more run and gun,” said Joel Ward, who prior to joining the Capitals as a free agent in 2011 played for Nashville in the West. “The West from my experience seems to be bigger bodies and focusing on cycling down low. In the East, you’ve got the Ovis and Crosbys, that offensive style of game, and in the West there’s just a different pace with more wear and tear on everyone.”
Styles change over the course of time. Ward and Troy Brouwer, who played with the Blackhawks before being acquired by the Capitals in 2011, both see some Western Conference teams developing an approach that relies on rapid puck movement as much as a bruising, grinding game.
Speed of Western Conference foes must also be factored into the Capitals’ approach. They’ve already seen strong skating teams like Colorado, Dallas and Edmonton that will exploit neutral-zone turnovers.
“When you play against teams like Edmonton, you’ve got to put the puck deep or they’re going to hurt you. They’ve got young guys that will hurt you on the rush,” said Jason Chimera, who spent his first eight-plus seasons in the West. “If you don’t get the pucks deep in the Western Conference it seems like it hurts you a lot more.”
The Capitals want to continue cleaning up their game and working toward the type of performances that helped them fight their way into the playoffs last year. To do that, Washington needs to be aware of the new wrinkles Western opponents bring while remaining focused on the basics of its own aggressive style.
The Capitals need to continue with the fervent defense of the space in front of the crease they displayed against Columbus, work continually as three-man forward units to develop a productive cycle game and take care of the puck in the neutral zone.
“It’s going to be a bit of jumping into the fire and seeing how it goes on this trip,” Brouwer said. “But no matter who we’re up against, we have to only worry about ourselves and how we’re playing.”