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Discovering recipe for success on road crucial to Capitals’ playoff push

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MONTREAL — There's no place like home for any team. Home ice is an advantage for a reason: comfort, crowd and even the ability to dictate matchups.

For the Washington Capitals, the disparity is essentially being the dominant New York Rangers at Verizon Center and the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets away from it. It's often the difference between winning and losing, as the Caps have yet to find a recipe for road success.

"I think our overall team play hasn't been same. We deviate sometimes from our system," goaltender Tomas Vokoun said. "We just don't play smart road hockey and I think for whatever reason it's just like we have a certain advantage over teams at home they have over us."

A vast majority of Washington's road games have looked ugly. Going into Wednesday night's visit to the Montreal Canadiens, they were 7-12-1, a points percentage of .375 that ranks fifth-worst in the NHL. Meanwhile, a 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday notwithstanding, they have a .729 points percentage at home, fifth best in the league.

Almost every team is better at home than on the road, but players can't seem to figure out why it's such a night-and-day difference.

"If I knew the answer, I think we'd be a lot better team on the road," defenseman John Erskine said.

It seems like every player has been asked why, and no one has a firm answer. But center Marcus Johansson argued it was not a matter of lacking effort.

"I think if we would've known it, we would've changed it. I think that we're trying," he said. "I think everybody's working their hardest and trying their hardest, but it's just not working. It's something that we have to figure out."

One theory is that the tactical advantage home teams have is a particular problem for coach Dale Hunter, who likes to single out favorable matchups.

With home teams getting the last line change, it's much harder to get good matchups and set a tone.

It's also harder to cover up weaknesses, such as lack of team speed and some serious youth, especially on defense. Hunter shrugged off matchup issues as a reason.

The coach and several players pointed to the big advantage of playing in front of a partisan crowd at Verizon Center and the "comfort" of being able to go about routine. But veteran Mike Knuble doesn't subscribe to that theory.

"It's not a comfort thing. It's not being a homer type team or anything like that," Knuble said. "We've got guys in our locker room that have won a lot of games on the road in the past. Just kind of getting the right feel going, the right thoughts and playing a boring road game. I mean we've played boring home games, so we need to play some boring road games and do the same thing on the road."

No one would argue with boring if it got results, and with two more games left on this road swing — Carolina on Friday and Pittsburgh on Sunday — results are crucial.

With the Capitals seeking to look like a playoff team past the midway point of the season, finding a winning rhythm on the road is essential.

"You have to play the way you're good at playing your game. I think the whole team has been playing that way at home now, and we've been successful," Johansson said. "It's a little different playing on the road, but we have to be better at it."

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