Just six days after Alex Semin's late heroics saved the Caps from falling six points behind the 'Canes in the Southeast Division, Washington heads to Raleigh tied for first place with a game in hand (note: first "game in hand" mention of the season). And while the Caps have enjoyed the comforts of home thus far this season (they're the only Eastern Conference team without a regulation loss in their own building), they've found the road to be considerably less friendly - their five points away from home are tied for the fewest in the East; they have scored 3.57 goals per game as hosts, but just 2.43 away from the VC and have allowed an average of just two goals against per game on their slushy sheet, but 3.71 on the road. Basically, the Caps have been The Stone Roses' eponymous debut album at home, and their brutal follow-up record on the road.
But with a bounce here or there, the story could be much different - three of the Caps' five road losses have been by a single goal, a trio of 2-1 decisions (the other two losses are never again to be spoken of).
So what does the team need to do to get over the hump and starting picking up some W's on the road? One big question revolves around the top line. The trio of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom (and, before he got injured, Sergei Fedorov) has produced five of the Caps' last eight even strength, non-empty net goals, but were singled out as being "too cute" on Monday night. Perhaps more importantly, the line's successes have come on a three-game homestand, where line matching was in Bruce Boudreau's favor. If they take this show on the road as is, however, they can expect a heavy diet of Rod Brind'Amour, Tim Gleason and Carolina's other top defensive players, raising the obvious question as to why you'd want to put your two best scorers on one line and rather than forcing Peter Laviolette to pick his poison? I'm on record as being against the regular use of an "Eggs" line (i.e. any line with both Alexes on it), especially on the road, but I have about as much influence on the Caps roster as I do on U.S. foreign policy ("Mr. President, that briefing you requested on the deportation of Sidney Crosby..."), so we'll see how the man in charge rolls.
The Caps would also help their chances at victory if they can get the power play going - they're stuck in a 1-for-16 (6.3%) rut with the extra man over their last five games, and lately have had incredible trouble entering the zone and/or establishing possession once there. It's a much larger problem than any one player, but there's one guy who got a big contract this summer because he makes the power play go, and it's been stuck in neutral for nearly a month. Put another way, how the hell can the season be 14 games old with Mike Green still looking for his first power play assist and Alex Ovechkin still looking for his first power play goal of the campaign?
For their part, the 'Canes are getting healthy (for them, at least), and having Matt Cullen as a second shut-down center should Gabby keep the Alexes paired isn't a bad option (to say nothing of how much he and Joni Pitkanen will help Carolina's power play). Expect to see Michael Leighton between the pipes for the 'Canes (the 27-year-old netminder has never faced the Caps), and Eric Staal flopping around on the ice like a fish on deck.
The bottom line on tonight is that it's never too early for a statement game, and after last week's win over Carolina, taking two points in Raleigh would certainly make a bold proclamation as to who this year's beast of the Southeast is. But no one's going to be too scared of a team that can't win on the road.
Elsewhere 'Round the Rinks:
Matt Cooke on being a teammate of both AO and Sid the Kid.... Bear Tracks, Bear Tracks!... If you're wondering about Hershey's line combos, wonder no longer.... John Carlson: elite player (scroll about halfway down).