Capitals’ road woes pinned on sluggish starts

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NEWARK, N.J. — Outside the friendly confines of Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals know they need to be careful. In hockey, the home team gets the final line change and can set the matchups it wants and can often use that to great advantage.

The Caps learned again on Friday night how hard it is to win on the road, falling behind by three and leaving Prudential Center with a 4-3 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils.

“We’ve got to take a little bit from it. The fact that we did battle back in the third was good. We had a good third period, worked hard and started to do the things that we wanted to do,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “The reason we were down is we beat ourselves in the first two periods.”

The first two periods in New Jersey appeared to be a textbook example of how not to start on the road, allowing plenty of open ice and forcing goaltender Michal Neuvirth to keep the Caps in the game. But perhaps it’s a well-timed lesson.

The Caps are 6-9-1 away from home this season (13 points out of a possible 32) going into a week in which they visit the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets. Generally, all hockey teams follow the same principles when playing on the road.

“You want to take the fans out of it,” forward Brooks Laich said. “If you can get a lead, quiet the building down and then push them back a little bit.”

They’ve managed to succeed at that only a few times this season, like in October at the Philadelphia Flyers and at the Carolina Hurricanes in early November. Jason Chimera called the first half of Friday night’s shootout defeat a lesson of “what not to do with the puck and what not to do playing hockey.”

“It was a bad 30 minutes … We weren’t ready to play,” he said. “The execution was terrible. We looked like pee-wee hockey players. No one could make a pass. No one was getting the puck out. We were fanning on the puck.”

A methodical third-period comeback, aided by some luck and a Devils team that couldn’t crack Neuvirth again, allowed the Caps to escape with a point and show something.

“Great character by the guys to come back and tie this up, get a point,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “[But] we can’t put ourselves in that position to start with.”

For a Caps group that has struggled on the road, a lot of it is about getting back to basics, like a strong Dale Hunter forecheck and just being responsible defensively. Then, there’s being conscious of the spark that a home team can get.

“I think always the first period is really, really hard. The home team usually comes out pretty tough,” Alzner said. “I think that we need to maybe re-emphasize things that we need to do before the game a little bit more, as players. We should have maybe reminded ourselves more, because we weren’t doing it.”

The last time the Caps played in Buffalo — where they’ll be Monday night — they got blasted 5-1 in the final game under Bruce Boudreau. And though similar consequences won’t happen if they can’t beat the Sabres this time around, players understand that they can’t let complacency get to them, either.

“We went from playing a really solid style of game against Nashville to thinking, ‘Oh maybe we’re back on the winning train. Let’s just do that,’ ” Alzner said. “So we kind of got away from our game.”

Rediscovering that game will go a long way to discovering some winning ways on the road.

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