Ask any NHL player and he will tell you the 82-game regular season is not a sprint, but a marathon.
That may be true, but the Capitals made a habit of stumbling out of the gates under Adam Oates and will need to avoid those obstacles under new coach Barry Trotz if they hope to return to the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years.
One look at their 2014-15 schedule tells you why.
The Caps open their 40th NHL season with four of their first five games at Verizon Center. They close their regular season with a visit to Detroit, followed by home games against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
Two seasons ago the Caps began the Adam Oates era with a 2-8-1 start to the 2012-13 season and had to go on a season-ending 15-2-2 run to earn a playoff spot, where they lost in the first round to the Rangers.
Last season they lost four of their first five games under Oates and never fully recovered, getting eliminated from the playoffs with three games remaining on their schedule, mostly because of a seven-game losing streak in January.
With that in mind, here are some critical portions of the Capitals’ 2014-15 schedule, released on Sunday:
Litmus test: If the Caps can take advantage of their first eight games under Trotz it could go a long way in establishing the tone they want to set for the 51-year-old coach.
They begin with a home contest against the Canadiens, followed by a road trip to face the Bruins, who will be playing their third game in four nights. They return home for games against the Sharks, who are expected to make some major changes this summer after blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round, and the Devils and Panthers, each of whom missed the playoffs last season.
In fact, from Oct. 16-26, the Caps will face five straight teams that did not make the playoffs last season – New Jersey, Florida, at Edmonton, at Calgary, at Vancouver.
Avenger nights: There’s a tasty little diversion for the Caps surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday. On Nov. 22, the Caps will host the Buffalo Sabres for the first time, which could mark Michal Neuvirth’s return to Washington, where he spent the first six years and 134 games of his NHL career. Neuvirth posted a 59-41-13 record in parts of six seasons with the Caps, but requested a trade last season and was shipped to Buffalo at the trade deadline for Jaroslav Halak.
Which brings us to the Caps’ following two games, the night before Thanksgiving and the Black Friday after. The Caps will travel to Long Island on Nov. 26 to face Halak and the Islanders, then return home for a rematch two nights later. In 12 games for the Caps, Halak went 5-4-3 but was infamously accused by Oates of not wanting to face his former teammates in a must-win game against the St. Louis Blues.
HBO challenge: Back in 2010, HBO gave hockey fans an exclusive look at the rivalry between the Capitals and Penguins, highlighted by the animosity between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and Bruce Boudreau’s encounter with chicken wings.
This year, HBO will have a more difficult challenge trying to rustle up some hate between two teams – the Caps and Blackhawks – who have no significant history with one another. The coverage will climax with the 2015 Winter Classic, presumably at NatsPark, on New Year’s Day.
You can bet NBC is hoping for a light snowfall for a little ambiance between Ovechkin and Patrick Kane.
Music City lovefest: The night of Jan. 16 will be an emotional one for Trotz. After 16 seasons and nearly 1,200 games behind the bench as the only coach in Predators history, Trotz will return to Nashville for the first time as coach of the Capitals. Expect a few tears that night as the city of Nashville gives its prodigal son a massive group hug while pulling for Peter Laviolette to beat the Caps.
Down and dirty: If you’re looking for the most critical juncture in the Caps’ 2014-15 season, look no further than the month of February, when the Caps play 14 games in 27 days, including a pair of games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, two more against Boudreau and the Ducks, and two each against Metropolitan Division rivals from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Included in that stretch is a four-game road trip that takes the Caps to San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Pittsburgh.
Uphill climb or downward spiral? Once the Caps get through the challenge of February, they have a chance to make some serious noise in March when they play nine of their 14 games at the friendly confines of Verizon Center. Included in that stretch is their longest homestand of the season, a five-game set from March 5-15 against the Wild, Sabres, Rangers, Stars and Bruins.
Crunch time: If the Capitals are teetering on the brink of the playoffs heading into the final week of the season, they’ll need to earn their way in. They close out the regular season with an April 5 visit to Detroit, where the Red Wings have reached the playoffs 23 straight seasons, followed by home games against the Bruins on April 8, and the defending Eastern Conference champion Rangers on April 11.