By Adam Vingan
Under the NHL’s soon-to-be-extinct conference alignment, teams play only 18 of their 82 regular season games against opponents from the other conference. For example, the Washington Capitals play 12 Western Conference teams once this year, but play three of them twice.
Including Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in the two teams’ only meeting of the season, the Caps play four straight games against Western opponents. The second game of this stretch comes Tuesday when Washington hosts the Calgary Flames in another “one-and-done” series. Later this week, the Caps embark on a two-game West Coast trip to play the San Jose Sharks for the first of two games this season and the Los Angeles Kings in their only meeting.
Considering the fact that the Caps plays their Southeast Division brethren a total of 24 times per season (six against Florida, Winnipeg, Carolina and Tampa Bay) and 40 against the rest of the Eastern Conference (four games), teams learn their tendencies. Yet, against Western teams, there is an element of surprise that can assist with game planning.
“In those types of games, it doesn’t matter how you win, it doesn’t matter if you win in a shootout or not, as long as you’re getting points for yourself,” Troy Brouwer said Monday after practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Who cares if they get points, to be honest with you. Maybe they haven’t seen Jason Chimera play as well as he has all season. Little things like that. You can surprise them with how well guys are playing or the systems that you normally play. The coaches do their jobs in doing pre-scouts, but they can only do so much.”
That element of surprise, however, works both ways. Washington is 5-6-0 in games against Western Conference opponents this season, but four of those wins have come at home (the Caps won their first road game against a Western team Saturday against Columbus). One of the losses was a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche December 17 in an example of how teams can use different game plans against other teams that don’t normally see them.
“Teams that you don’t play a lot, they can use their little trick plays or their ones that they normally do picks, Karl Alzner said. “[The] same happened with Colorado. The team picked a lot in the [defensive] zone and it was hard for us to defend it and they ended up beating us.”
The Caps hope that they can catch the Flames off-guard Tuesday in the latter’s first visit to Washington since earning a 5-3 win on March 28, 2010. While a 18-17-5 record doesn’t look imposing, they rank in the upper half of the league in goals against per game (2.72) and penalty kill (83.6%). Of course, Jarome Iginla is always a threat when he’s on the ice, but especially now that he is just one goal away from becoming the 42nd player in league history to score 500 goals.
“They’re just a real hard-working team that chips pucks, keeps it simple, very limited with their turnovers,” Brouwer said. “Their top players are as good as they come. They’re just a real simple team and that’s what we have to look forward to.”
Against Western Conference teams, the Caps’ familiar tendencies are unfamiliar and they look to take advantage of that.
“You’ve got to make sure to pay attention when we’re doing video,” Alzner said. “The coaches watch five games a day and they know what they’re saying, so i think you get a little bit of the surprise out, but it’s still different when you get on the ice.”