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No more road warriors

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A few years ago, it was normal for eastern NHL teams to have extended trips of two weeks or more through the Midwest and western Canada a few times a year.

Now, they are as rare as natural hat tricks.

The Washington Capitals open a four-game western jaunt tonight against Colorado in Denver, a trip that also takes the team to the three western Canadian cities -- Vancouver, Edmonton and closing in Calgary on Monday night.

The "new" NHL has abandoned yearly home-and-home visits between teams. Instead, teams concentrate on building intra-division and intra-conference rivalries. The Caps play each of their four Southeast Division rivals eight times a season and the other Eastern Conference teams four times each. That leaves 10 openings for games against the West.

Goalie Olie Kolzig, 36, is one of a few Capitals players who can remember the old days, when teams packed for a road swing of 17 or so days, playing seven or more games on the road while the Capital Centre hosted an annual horse show.

"And I think they should go back to that," Kolzig said yesterday.

"Yep, I do miss that," he said. "I understand they want to create rivalries but to see the same team in your division eight times a year, that's a little too much. Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, towns like that, they aren't going to see [Alex] Ovechkin or [Alexander] Semin until next year and that's too bad."

Washington played the three California teams and Phoenix during Ovechkin's rookie season, and the left wing had five goals, including all of the Caps' scoring in a 3-2 win at Anaheim. Against Phoenix, Ovechkin swept the puck into the net while lying flat on his back, a remarkable goal often described as the NHL's goal of the decade.

"I think we have such an exciting team with Ovechkin that it's difficult to have an NHL season and not see him," said coach Glen Hanlon, who broke in with Vancouver as a goalie in 1977. "We're so proud of him and Semin. There's a strong argument for rivalries but I like [the new concept] because I'm not away as much. I think you have better hockey now through six or seven months because there's less fatigue. If you eliminate some of the division games to go out west, your product ends up suffering."

Vancouver, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Canadian Rockies as a backdrop, is one of the most beautiful cities on the NHL circuit but it is also the toughest place to play. Every away game is a lengthy plane flight, whereas the Caps can drive to Philadelphia in two hours and fly to half a dozen other cities in an hour or so.

The western trips also give players from that part of Canada the rare chance to play in front of family and friends. Center Brian Sutherby, a native of Edmonton, has been a Caps regular since 2002 but will play in his hometown for just the second time as an NHL player on Saturday night.

"I'm going to have a lot of family and friends there, probably close to 50," he said yesterday, already excited about the prospect. "I haven't played at home since my rookie season so yeah, going home is pretty special."

It will be extra special for left wing Matt Pettinger, who will likely play his first game of the season tonight against the Avalanche after recovering from an injury. He is also an Edmonton native, played college hockey in Denver, junior hockey in Calgary and now lives in British Columbia in the offseason. His parents have leased a luxury box for the game against the Canucks so they can play host to other family members and friends.

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