Packing for a mid-December road trip through both Tampa Bay and Columbus could be a head-scratcher for even the savviest of veterans. But as the Capitals embark on a two-game trek this weekend, the potentially 40-degree drop in temperature barely fazes them.
“I don’t worry too much about these types of things,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said this week.
The Capitals don’t have much to worry about at all these days. They’ve assumed their familiar perch atop the NHL’s overall standings with a 23-5-5 record and finally trotted out their fully healthy optimal lineup for the first time all season last week.
Along the way, the Capitals have emerged as the best road team in the NHL. Washington’s 14-2-1 road record is not only tops in the NHL this year, it’s also the best road start in franchise history.
“Home or away, I don’t think it really makes a big difference to us,” said goaltender Braden Holtby. “We can play well anywhere and I think we’ve shown that.”
Looking back at the start of the season, the Capitals had a grueling October, with nine of their first 14 games on the road. It was a travel-heavy stretch that could have left the Capitals in a precarious spot by month’s end.
Instead, beginning with a two-goal comeback in a season-opening win against defending Stanley Cup champions the St. Louis Blues, the Capitals went 7-1-1 on the road in October. In the process, they tied an NHL record for the most road wins in the opening month of the season (only matched by the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils).
Washington capped off their opening month with the best five-game road trip in team history – a 4-0-1 run in which the Capitals played five games in 10 nights across four time zones. The stretch included the largest single-game comeback in franchise history, as the Capitals erased a 5-1 deficit late in the second period and rallied to beat Vancouver 6-5 in a shootout on Oct. 25.
“We’re a really even-keeled team,” said Capitals center Nic Dowd. “Guys in here know how to win and they’ve been doing it for a long time. I know it’s a cliché, but really on this team, we go out and play and we all have a feeling that we’ll win the game regardless of what the score is.
“If you look at the Vancouver game, at no point were guys down on the bench. We have a good group of guys that keep each other positive.”
Former Capitals head coach Barry Trotz used to say that championship teams have the ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. And over the course of a demanding NHL itinerary, potentially uncomfortable situations are plentiful. Injuries inevitably mount, adversity hits and the travel miles pile up.
Through the first two-and-a-half months of the season, the Capitals have looked the part of a veteran-laden team that won’t be easily frazzled. There is a cool, calm, collected nature to them that has perhaps been most evident on the road.
“We have terrific leaders,” assistant coach Scott Arniel told the Capitals Radio Network after a multi-goal comeback in Florida on Nov. 7. “There’s no panic.”
The Capitals’ road success wasn’t limited to October. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Washington’s 108-54-18 road record is tops on the circuit. In 2018, the Stanley Cup champions won a postseason-record 10 games on the road and they became just the second team in league history to clinch all four series on the road.
“I think we recognize the importance of playing a little bit smarter on the road,” said forward Lars Eller.
“That goes for the last couple of years, too. On the road, in my opinion, we play with a little bit less risk and we play a little bit smarter. Sometimes at home, we take chances that maybe we shouldn’t take because we think we can just score enough to win the game,” said Eller. “I think that maybe we respect the game a little bit more on the road and maybe that’s why we tend to let in [fewer goals].”
Most recently, the Capitals completed their first 4-0-0 road trip in 26 years. The trip, which took the Capitals through Detroit, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim, also included their first ever three-game sweep in California.
The Capitals’ defensive play was especially impressive, as they outscored their opponents 16-7 over the four-game stretch and successfully killed nine of their 10 shorthanded situations.
“We’ve also had outstanding goaltending and we can’t take that for granted,” Eller said. “[Penalty kill] has been better and some games we’ve taken a lot less penalties and that helps. So, it’s a lot of things.”
Despite the perks that come with NHL travel, including chartered flights and five-star hotels, life on the road can also be incredibly taxing. What impresses head coach Todd Reirden most about how his team handles their time on the road is that he doesn’t see the typical cliques that can form within a group of 20 co-workers.
“When we’re off the ice, I see groups of guys doing different things — going to lunch someplace, some guys are going to a movie, some guys are going to shop — but it’s never the same group of guys together,” he said. “It’s always different. Maybe I’ll see them and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s a different group than I’ve seen hang together.’”
Reirden points to the routines the team has built on the road and the bonds that have formed amongst his players as key ingredients to fuel a winning environment without the comforts of home.
“They genuinely enjoy being around one another,” said Reirden. “I think that’s a special attribute.”