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.