It's been mentioned from time to time but little has been written to this point about how well the Capitals have been playing this season on the road. Part of that is because until the beginning of December the Caps hap played a schedule that was pretty evenly spread between home and away games. In fact from the beginning of the season on October X through November 31st the Caps played 27 games, 13 at home and 14 on the road. Further the Caps toughness at home has been something of growing note since last season, and through November 31st they had an overall record of 16-5-6 for 38 points. Of their 5 losses and 6 OT/SO losses, 3 losses and 3 OT losses were on the road. So when December rolled around and the Caps had 13 games scheduled, of which 8 were road games including a 4 game road trip that included a West Coast swing through Colorado, Vancouver and Edmonton; you had to think of December as a good month to benchmark just how good the Caps are this year.
Well happily for Caps fans the Caps have played 10 of those 13 scheduled games including 7 of the 8 scheduled road games and so far for December they are: 7-3-0. In other words through November 31st the Caps were playing 0.704 hockey "all in" and through December thus far the Caps are playing a consistent 0.700 hockey, despite spending much of this month so far "on the road." How do you like them apples? Pretty tasty, eh? Even better is the fact that as has been noted elsewhere, the Caps have accomplished this during the first three months of a season where they were banged up and until recently were very salary cap constrained when it came to moving players back and forth between DC and Hershey and couldn't even begin to consider venturing into the trade or "rental player" market in February. Two things that are no longer issues for the Coaching staff of Caps General manager George McPhee. So what's all that mean? For me it means it's time to look ahead to the next six weeks of the NHL season the time from today until the two week break for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
As we start the run-up to the Olympics the Capitals find themselves atop the Southeast Division with 52 points, ahead of the second place Atlanta Thrashers by 12 points though the Thrashers have a game in hand so in baseball speak that would put the Caps 5 1/2 games ahead of Atlanta. The Caps lead in the Southeast Division is the largest of any division leader by a margin of 8 points. The Caps are in second place in the Eastern Conference, just one point behind the New Jersey Devils who also have two games in hand on the Caps and three games in hand on their Division rival Pittsburgh Penguins who also have 52 points. The Caps and Devils will play each other on Saturday evening here in DC, should the Caps win, they will once again find themselves atop the Eastern Conference as Pittsburgh is idle until Sunday.
From Saturday through the start of the Olympic break on February 14th, the Caps will play 25 games. Of the Caps' scheduled 25 games 13 will be played at home in Verizon Center and 12 will be on the road. The 31 days of January are especially busy for the Caps with 15 games including two "back to backs" - they play in Sunrise, Fl. on the 12th and Saint Petersburg on the 13th; then they play the Islanders in Uniondale, NY on the 26th before coming home to face Anaheim here at Verizon Center on the 27th. Seven (7) of the 25 games before the break are against SE Division opponents and so far this season the Caps are 8-0 against their division rivals so if trends hold, their lead in the Southeast Division should be even greater when they break on February 14th. Nineteen (19) of the 25 games will be against Eastern Conference foes who the Caps are 18-6-5 (0.707). All told it's quite possible, some might even say likely the Caps will go into the Olympic Break with at least 86 and as many as 91+ points.
The next three games, the last for December and the 15 in January will be interesting to say the least. Saturday we have a battle between beasts of the East. On Monday the 28th, the Caps host the struggling Carolina Hurricanes, who will be looking to regain some level of respect. Following that, they close out this year and start the New year with a short two game West Coast swing out to California to face the usually strong, and even stronger than last year San Jose Sharks and then the up and coming Los Angeles Kings both of whom sport solid records against Eastern Division opponents and potent offenses of their own. The first home game of the New Year finds the Capitals hosting the Canadeans on Monday, January 5th for their third meeting of the season. The Caps are 1-1-0 against the Canadeans and the Canadeans have started to find their game again of late. Following the Canadeans the Caps host the Senators on January 7th and then make a 3 game swing through SE Division opponents Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Florida from the 9th through the 13th before returning home to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, January 15th. The third week of the month brings four games, the Flyers at Verizon on Sunday the 17th, the Red Wings at Verizon on Tuesday the 19th, the Flightless Birds in Pittsburgh on the 21st, and the surprising Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon on Saturday the 23rd. The last full week of the month finds the Caps playing three games, the back-to-back with the Islanders and the Ducks on the 26th and 27th. They then finish the month out hosting the Florida and Tampa Bay on the 29th and 31st.
February finds the Caps playing 7 games in 13 days including 5 on the road before the break for the Olympics. They start the month with road games in Boston and at Madison Square Garden against the Bruins and Rangers on the 2nd and 4th. Then they play Atlanta and Pittsburgh at Verizon Center on the 5th and 7th. They finish up the pre-break season on the road with back to back games against the Canadeans and Senators on the 10th and 11th and then travel to Saint Louis on the 13th. All in all even the most rabid NHL fan should be ready for a break and to watch the Olympics after the upcoming six weeks.
Right now the Caps are on track to amass 115 points this season and compete for the President's Trophy as well as the Eastern Conference Regular Season Championship, though more importantly they are playing for and could obtain home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Of course all that is really getting ahead of ourselves. So it's pretty easy to get caught up and look at what all this could lead to but to get there means keeping first things first. So the first thing the Caps need to do over the next six weeks is be ready for the Devils and Martin Brodeur here at Verizon Center on Saturday. The Devils game will be a good one and it will likely be another test for the Caps. The Devils are 10-1-0 for December including two shutouts by Brodeur, his record tying 103rd against the Sabres in Buffalo on Pearl Harbor Day and his record setting 104th against the Pesky Flightless Birds in Pittsburgh on Monday Night. The Caps and Devils have already met three times this season and the Caps are 0-2-1 against the Conference leading Devils. To win against the Devils on Saturday the Caps will need to play a similar game to what they played last night for all 60 minutes. The Devils like the Sabres have awesome goaltending and defense. The Devils also have a much more potent offense, because of that the Caps will need to play better team defense then they did last night and do it for all sixty minutes. In the end that has been and will continue to be the way the Caps will get to 110+ points this season and then afterwards to their ultimate goal or as far as this season will take them - one focused effort, one game at a time.