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What the Capitals must do as they embark on their longest road trip in eight years

What the Capitals must do as they embark on their longest road trip in eight years

ARLINGTON — The Capitals have embarked on the organization’s longest continuous road trip in recent memory. 

NHL players are used to life on the road. They have to play away from home 41 times every season no matter what so you get used to hotels and flights and buses to the rink. But the six-game, 12-day road trip that starts tonight in Columbus against the Blue Jackets is a little much. 

After beating the Los Angeles Kings at Capital One Arena on Monday, gear flew around the locker room afterward as bags were stuffed for the equipment staff and the players quickly got ready for the late-night drive to the airport.

The trip starts with a big Metropolitan Division game against Columbus, but the Capitals then head west for three games in California – in San Jose on Thursday before two days off and then back-to-back games in the Los Angeles area against the Kings and then the Anaheim Ducks. It doesn’t stop there. The Capitals head back east for games in Toronto and Buffalo before finally returning home.    

“Guys will get sick of steakhouses after about that ninth day,” center Nic Dowd said. “It’s good team bonding though. We did one of those - maybe a shorter one - in Vancouver at the beginning of the year and you get to know each other pretty well.”

The Capitals went 2-1-0 on that visit to Western Canada in October, but it was a relatively reasonable seven-day trip that ended with an afternoon game in Calgary. This time Washington starts with a back-to-back set of games against the Kings and Blue Jackets, has a back-to-back in the middle in Los Angeles and ends with yet another back-to-back. After playing the Buffalo Sabres in an afternoon game on Feb. 23, the Capitals race home to play the New York Rangers at 12:30 p.m. the next day.     

“For us I think it’s going to be fun,” forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “We enjoy hanging out together…It’s a challenge regardless even without having back-to-backs, traveling and all that stuff and playing good teams every night. But I think we always rise to the occasion. We know what’s at stake.”

Smith-Pelly is one of the few players on the roster who knows what it’s like to go away for almost two weeks. He spent parts of four seasons at the start of his career with Anaheim. It’s part of life in the Western Conference where division rivals are spaced in cities far apart and there are too many Eastern Conference teams to hit on one visit – or even two.  

The Capitals played Anaheim on Dec. 2 at the end of its five-game, eight-day trip. Less than two weeks later the Ducks were off on a five-game, nine-day trip that started in Columbus and ended in Buffalo. In January they had yet another five-game trip over eight days. Preparing your suitcase for those trips can be daunting. 

“I’m the over packer. I’m the guy bringing two suitcases on a trip to Carolina and Florida,” Smith-Pelly said. “But I played in the west so I’m used to those long crazy road trips and going all over the place.”

The Capitals rarely have to worry about that. There are six teams in the Metropolitan Division where flights are under an hour and another seven in the Eastern Conference where flights are shorter than two hours. 

Washington hasn’t played six consecutive road games since the 2010-2011 season. And even that wasn’t all in one sitting. That March 15-26, 2011 trip went to Montreal, Detroit and New Jersey, but was interrupted by three days off where the Capitals could come home and then continue the back half of the trip later in Philadelphia.

Matt Niskanen began his career in Dallas for three-and-a-half seasons. Since he has played in the Eastern Conference with Pittsburgh and Washington these long trips have become unfamiliar for the defenseman. And that’s good because it’s getting harder to say goodbye to his son, Charlie, who at age four doesn’t quite get why his dad is leaving. Facetiming helps.   

“We’re learning,” Niskanen said. “But it does make it tougher to go - and sure makes it fun to come home. Thank God for technology.”

The Capitals haven’t played seven games in a row away from home since Alex Ovechkin’s rookie year in 2005-06 and that one, too, had a three-day break to come home. 

In 2002-03 they did play eight games on the road in October, but with a four-day break after the first game in New York before playing seven straight. They get no such luck this time – and won’t get any sympathy from players in the Western Conference. Dowd, who played parts of three seasons in Los Angeles and Vancouver, was once one of them.  

“The time changes are tough. The travel is tough on the body,” Dowd said. “You’re going to forget what hotel room you’re in and have to go to the front desk to get a new key card. You’re gonna be in San Jose and then you’ll be in Anaheim and then you’ll be in L.A. It does have its challenges.”

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How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

Monday's 5 p.m. deadline came and went and, though a handful of players around the league decided to opt out of the 2020 postseason, none of the Capitals players did. But don't mistake this to mean it was an easy decision. For perhaps the first time in their lives, the players had to honestly ask themselves if they wanted to play hockey and whether it was even possible to play the sport they love without putting the people they love at risk.

"I think for me, we went through every single thing the NHLPA and the NHL threw at you since day one in terms of the health risks and everything and you're weighing your options," Carl Hagelin said.

"I think around the league a lot of guys had their own personal situations, whether it was their families or just how their last couple months have been," Brenden Dillon said. "I think for us as NHL players we respect any decision made regarding that."

It wasn't a difficult question for everyone.

"I'm pretty sure my wife support me, it doesn't matter what decision I will make," Ovechkin said, "But obviously I miss hockey and they miss hockey so for me it's not even a question to skip it or play."

Winning a Stanley Cup was of course a factor for many players.

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When the 2020 postseason gets underway, almost five months will have passed since the league paused the season. With 24 teams in the postseason and over a full offseason break between games, there is a feeling that the Cup is truly up for grabs.

That is not something that players took lightly, but the pursuit of the Cup is not the only factor the players had to think about considering playing could potentially put one's family at risk.

"A lot of thoughts going into the decision, weighing the pros and cons," Lars Eller said. "For me personally, we're going to have a new addition to our family here in a couple weeks. I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen. But at the same time, I want to be with my team and also committed to that and want to win another Cup."

Eller's baby, his second child, is due Aug. 8. He said Tuesday that he intends to leave the bubble to be there for the birth.

Carl Hagelin is in a similar situation with his second child due in September.

"I spoke to my wife too and she said as long as you come back when the kid is born, you're welcome to leave," Hagelin said. "She knows hockey is a big part of my life and it's a big part of our family's life and so we have an opportunity here to win the Stanley Cup and that's the goal right now."

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It's a tricky tightrope that the NHL players are now forced to walk, trying to balance the safety of their families with their desire to get back on the ice.

While Ovechkin may have been adamant that whether to play or not was "not even a question," he was also very clear that he felt safety was the top priority.

"That's the most important thing for us right now to get safe," Ovechkin said. "I think for right now in this type of situation, you have to be careful, you have to be 100-percent sure you're not going to get COVID and you're not going to bring it to your families."

While they may not have opted out, concerns over safety have led to some players and even team personnel to make significant sacrifices. Head coach Todd Reirden and his wife decided it was best for her to take their immunodeficient son, Travis, to Valparaiso, Ind. while Reirden went back to practice. Nicklas Backstrom left his family back in Sweden when he returned for training camp.

"I think we decide pretty early that I was going to go over myself," Backstrom said. "We liked our setup better for my fiancee and kids to stay back in Sweden there. It wasn't really a long conversation."

But even with all the extra precautions being taken by the players and with coronavirus cases spiking in various parts of the country, still not one Capitals player opted out.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association negotiated health and safety protocols in great detail for the 2020 return to play plan. The players seem to be very satisfied with the results given that the league needed the NHLPA to approve the protocols in order to return to play.

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"I think everybody’s in a different situation at home with families and stuff and the one constant is that it’s an infectious disease and anybody can get it," Tom Wilson said, who is the team's player rep for the NHLPA. "I think we had to be confident in the protocols. We had to be confident that the league and the PA were taking all the different measures to make sure we’d be as safe as possible."

in the end, the players are back because they believe they can safely conclude the season given the protocols put in place by the NHL and NHLPA. The question is, are they right?

"Obviously we all love hockey and we want it back and if we can do it now and we're all very strict about this, I think we can make it happen," Backstrom said. "We all want sports back and we want to do what we love, you know?"

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Capitals to play Hurricanes in lone exhibition game before round robin tournament

Capitals to play Hurricanes in lone exhibition game before round robin tournament

The Capitals will play the Carolina Hurricanes at 4 p.m. on July 29 in each team's lone exhibition game before beginning the 2020 postseason, the league announced Tuesday.

The exhibition game will be played in the hub city of Toronto. Teams are scheduled to travel to their hub cities on July 26. Each of the 24 teams in the postseason will play one exhibition game before the postseason officially begins on Aug 1.

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As the final seeding for the top-four seeds is not yet set, the Caps and Hurricanes could see each other again soon. It is possible for these two teams to play in the first round of the playoffs depending on where Washington finishes in the round robin and if Carolina defeats the New York Rangers in a best-of-five series in the qualifying round.

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Here is the full exhibition schedule:

The broadcast information has not yet been announced.

In addition, the NHL has also set the start time for Washington's first round robin game. The Caps will play the Tampa Bay Lightning on Aug. 3 at 4 p.m. The start times for Washington's remaining two games have not yet been set.

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