Forty Miles of Bad Road

On this Monday morning in December, only 14 points separates the second place from the 14th place teams in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference. Buffalo is off in its own league, and at the other end of the ledger, so is Philadelphia. The 13 teams clustered in between are a hot streak away from the penthouse and a cold spell away from a lottery pick.

The Capitals are living, breathing proof of this. Three weeks ago, the Caps had gone winless in six and had tumbled down to the 13th spot in the conference. Since then, they are a torrid 7-1-1 and have climbed into a tie for fifth in the conference standings. Washington has 50 games to go, and the next eight come in a tightly bunched span of what should prove to be one of the most grueling stretches of hockey in the Capitals’ three decades plus of NHL existence. The travel doesn’t help, either.

Sound like hyperbole? It’s not.

Even though the Caps will enjoy the luxury of consecutive days off this week, the grinding part of the schedule has already started. Friday night’s game in Atlanta started a stretch in which the Caps must play five games in nine nights. Defeating Atlanta on Friday and Philadelphia on Saturday got Washington off to a healthy start in that span; it was the first set of back-to-back games the caps swept in nearly a year.

The win over Philly kicked off a three-game homestand. Tampa Bay visits Verizon on Tuesday, followed by New Jersey on Friday. Then Washington takes a quick one-game trip over the border for a Saturday Hockey Night in Canada tilt with the Maple Leafs. A late night return flight will get them back in the wee hours of Christmas Eve. Washington will be off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as will the rest of the NHL.

This week’s grind of five games in nine nights will prepare the Caps for what comes next: five games in seven days. Immediately after the two-day holiday break, the Caps head back out on the road to Buffalo for a Dec. 26 date with the Sabres. Immediately after that game, they return home for a one-game stand with Montreal on Dec. 27. Wednesday of that week (Dec. 28) is a practice/travel day; the Caps must play in New Jersey on Dec. 29 and New York against the Rangers on Dec. 30. They’re off on Dec. 31 before hosting the Phoenix Coyotes in a New Year’s Day matinee at Verizon Center on Jan. 1.

All together, that’s 10 games in 18 days with four (!) sets of back-to-back contests shoe-horned into the slate. The week after Christmas provides the rarity of four games in five nights. How rare is that? Well, when the Caps last played four games in five nights in 2003-04 (back-to-backs on Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and Jan. 3-4), we thought it rare enough to research. And here is what we found and wrote at the time:

“It has been nearly 20 years since the Caps last played four games over a five-day span and there were extenuating circumstances surrounding that occasion.

A game against the Vancouver Canucks originally scheduled for the Capital Centre on Feb. 11, 1983 was postponed because of a snowstorm. The game was rescheduled for March 23 and thus became the first game of four over a five-day stretch. The Caps tied the Canucks, then defeated New Jersey the next night. After a day off, they tied the Penguins at the Capital Centre on March 26 before falling to the Rangers in New York on March 27.

It has been more than 20 years since the Capitals were actually scheduled to play four games in five nights. The last time the original NHL schedule called for such a rugged span of hockey was on March 10-11 and 12-13 of 1981. That period began with a win over Colorado at the Capital Centre on March 10 and a win over the Whalers in Hartford on March 11. After a day off the Capitals dropped back-to-back games, losing at home to the Bruins and in Toronto to the Maple Leafs.

The NHL was different back then, and that was actually the second stretch of four games in five nights the Caps played that season. Washington defeated Colorado at home on Dec. 6, 1980, lost to the Bruins on Boston on Dec. 7, fell to the Canucks at home on Dec. 9 and lost to the Rangers in New York on Dec. 10. The Caps played 23 sets of back-to-back games that season, accounting for more than half of the team’s 80-game schedule.

Grueling schedules were the norm in those days; the 1978-79 Caps had 26 sets of back-to-back games and played four games in five nights on five separate occasions during the course of the campaign. For comparison’s sake, the 1999-2000 Southeast Division championship team that piled up 102 points had to endure only 11 pairs of back-to-back contests.

The 2003-04 Caps are also currently in the midst of a stretch of five games in seven nights that opened on Monday with a 3-1 loss to the Bruins at MCI Center. That is also a fairly rare occurrence in recent NHL and Capitals history. It has been more than 10 years since the Caps played five games in seven nights and this will be just the third time in the last 23 seasons that Washington has done so.

The last time Washington played five games in a seven-day period was Oct. 24-30, 1993 when a tough five-game road trip took the Caps through Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Anaheim and San Jose in just seven days. The front and back pairs of games on that trip were back-to-back sets; the Vancouver visit was sandwiched between the only two days off in the middle. Amazingly, the Caps went 4-1 on the trip. The lone setback was an overtime loss at Calgary.

As difficult as the Capitals’ current grind of games is, it pales in comparison to the dinosaur of scheduling quirks, the three games in three nights stretch. Still commonplace in the minor leagues, the NHL and its Players’ Association outlawed the practice of playing three games in three nights more than a quarter-century ago.

The last time Washington was forced to play three times in as many nights was in March of 1978. Once again, weather was a factor. Snow forced the postponement of a March 3 home game against the Rangers. The Caps were originally slated to host Detroit on March 24 and travel to Montreal on March 25, but the Detroit game was rescheduled for March 26 at the Capital Centre so the Rangers game could be played in Landover on March 24. The Capitals lost all three games by a combined count of 20-5.

The only times the original NHL schedule demanded that Washington play three games in as many nights was in the franchise’s maiden season of 1974-75. The Caps played three straight on Nov. 18-20, ending a 14-game winless stretch (0-13-1) with a 6-4 home ice win over the California Golden Seals on Nov. 19. It was the second triumph in franchise history; the Caps are currently at 999 and holding.

On Feb. 21-23, 1975, the Caps lost three games in as many nights. They lost to the Sabres and Blues at home sandwiched around a quick trip to Chicago where they were pounded by the Blackhawks. After a one-day respite, the Caps lost to the Hawks at home and then journeyed to Pittsburgh where they lost to the Penguins. That’s the only time in franchise history the Caps played five games in six nights.”

So there you have it. The Caps are coming up on a rare and rugged stretch in the schedule and the patch of schedule that preceeds it is no picnic, either. Washington will also be facing mostly good Eastern Conference teams it is currently jockeying for position with in the NHL standings.

Don’t expect too much in the way of help from Hershey. The Bears will be enduring a coincidental stretch in which they’ll play eight games in a 12-day span before and after the holidays.

When this stretch ends, the Caps will be 40 games into the 82-game schedule. Getting four points over the weekend was huge, but there are eight games to go. Eat well and rest well boys, you’ll need it.

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7 Comments on “Forty Miles of Bad Road”

  1. fatdaddy Says:

    Yeesh. That is a b-r-u-t-a-l stretch for our boys. Hopefully they can slog their way to 8 points in these next 8 games. Gotta figure they’re gonna get blown out a time or two in there, playing good teams on the road when they’re tired…but if they can play .500 hockey, they should be in good shape for the second half and the stretch run.

    Two very exciting games over the weekend. I thought the Caps played a very nice game against Atlanta, and when #1 let in a bit of a softie, I thought they deserved a bit better. Then, of course, AO performed a few heroics and, presto, two points. The Caps did a nice job getting back on D, pushing the play to the boards, and making good exit passes from the zone. AO was a bit stymied all game, but Atlanta has good D and plays a disciplined game. But he found a crack of daylight there at the end, which was very exciting.

    Against the Flyers, I was pleased to see the Caps do what they needed to: dominate. They completely controlled the flow of the play for, say, the last 50 minutes of hockey. The only negative I saw was a tendency to get a bit fancy with a 2 goal lead. In particular, Laich skated into the offensive zone 1 on 3, and instead of chipping it into the corner and starting the forecheck, he hooked off and looked to make the spectacular play. Now, granted, they were winning and in control. But the resulting turnover, against a better team, could easily have resulted in a cheap goal that started the comeback.

    Currently, the Caps seem to deal with adversity pretty well. Against Philly and Atlanta, they got down, but kept playing hard and were rewarded. Success seems to go to their heads a little bit. In this next 10 games, hopefully they’ll make some strides in that area, and when they get a lead, learn to apply the chokehold.

  2. Luc Comeau Says:

    I’m looking forward to this stretch, because it’s a test of their mettle. I believe they’ll come out of it with more than 8 points in 8 games.

  3. Absaraka Says:

    Well, the crystal ball worked for the west coast swing in October, so I’ll trust it enough to go out on a couple of limbs.

    Predictions: By the time we get past Phoenix, we’ll have eleven points or better; meanwhile, Atlanta will slump, and we’ll end up on top of the Southeast.

    Game-by-game: We should beat the Bolts tomorrow night, and I like us at home against the Devils, so there’s 4. Toronto may go into extra time, or perhaps a shootout, and we all know how the Caps are doing in shootouts this year. One point. Buffalo may hold serve at home, but an upset is possible. I don’t see it happening at this time, however. The Habs are ahead of us, true, but I still think we can swipe two against them on our turf, although it might take more than sixty minutes. That’s 7 so far. We’ll split the Hudson weekend, although I’m not certain which team we’ll beat (Rangers being my best guess). We then come back to the Phone Booth to send the ‘Yotes away with their tails between their legs. Total: 11 points.

    Oh, and waiter? Keep a lot of humble pie on very short call.

    As to last weekend: We finally got the Atlanta monkey off our back, and it was fun to watch the Caps come home to thoroughly house the Flyers.

  4. fatdaddy Says:

    I hope you’re right – if they can come up with more than 8 points, that would be a real bonus.

    Coming up, after Tampa, they’ve got NJ, @Toronto, @Buffalo, Montreal, @NJ, and @NYR. All those final 6 teams are above the Caps in the standings except Toronto (even, but has played two extra games). I just think it’s awfully hard to play at a high level when you’re worn out. Look at the NYR, who have just finished up a 4-games-in-seven-days stint. They got whipped by Toronto two games ago, and beaten badly last night v. NJ.

    Now, I’m not sure what those other teams are doing, in terms of their own schedules. But I am fully expecting the Caps to absorb one or two real poundings in there somewhere.

    But, as the saying goes, that’s why they play the games. I’ll be pulling for the Caps!

  5. Absaraka Says:

    I WAS factoring travel into that. Bolts and Devils in our place three nights apart should be an easy 4. At Toronto I already called as a one-pointer. They then have two days off–Sunday is TBD, Monday is already scheduled off as I type this–before Buffalo. So they might be going straight from Toronto to Buffalo and resting for two days, which wouldn’t be a bad idea given how busy these two weeks will be. Then it’s home, James, for the Habs. As for Devils-Rangers, New Jersey’s not outlandishly far, and the Rangers and Devils are so close geographically that travel should not be that big a factor for Saturday. After that, Sunday off, and home Monday for the Yotes, who are stinking it up out West.

    I expect the whuppin’s to come from Buffalo and one of the Hudson teams, likely the Devils. But I stand by that 11-point prediction.

    The first two come tomorrow night against the Bolts. I think the Caps may dominate early, and then see Tampa Bay come back and make a game of it. Still, I’ll call it Caps by a pair Tuesday night, as the Caps pot a last-minute empty-netter when Tampa Bay pulls the goalie.

    I suspect I’ll be eating a lot of crow in 24 hours, but there you go.

  6. fatdaddy Says:

    No worries, man – stick by your guns! I am definitely hoping you are right.

    My second post above was not specifically in response to yours – in fact I did not see it before I hit the “submit” button. I started mine before you finished yours, so to speak.

    The Caps are due for a laugher, where they score 5 or so in the first period. Maybe tonight (hope springs eternal). So I’ll say the Caps win by 6 tonite.

    My own fearless predictions:

    I’ll go for 2 points each from the Bolts and the Devils (maybe in OT).

    Then 1 from Toronto, 1 from the Yotes (end of a brutal stretch, sluggish legs, etc), 1 from Montreal, 2 from NYR. Total of 9 in the stretch.

  7. fatdaddy Says:

    Ahem. Couldn’t have been much further off base about last night’s game, eh? The Caps mailed that one in – let’s hope they remember how to compete before the Devils show up.

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