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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