It seems like ages ago when folks were wondering how the Falcons would handle a lengthy stint away from the friendly confines of MassMutual Center.
After all, Springfield did have the scheduling benefit of playing nine of its first 11 games on home ice with a legitimate opportunity to dictate the pace in the Northeast Division.
With a 6-1-2 record on that initial home stretch, the Falcons were the front-runners from the beginning, but sustaining was pivotal to momentum.
They could have easily fallen off the throne and been content with a merely respectable road record (especially with a road-heavy schedule in November and December), but the Falcons have kept the pedal down even when they’re traveling by charter bus.
With a two-game weekend sweep of the St. John’s IceCaps in their back pocket, the Falcons not only have the best road record (8-1-1) but the top overall record in the Eastern Conference (14-4-4).
And it didn’t come easy at Mile One Centre in St. John’s, a tough place to play with one of the best home-ice advantages in the AHL.
“We knew that they sell out every game, and St. John’s is a really good hockey team,” Falcons center Ryan Johansen told BlueJackets.com. “It was a long travel day to get there, and that was a factor, but we got there on Thursday and had a good meal as a group.
“We went out there and took care of business on Friday night, then came out and did the same thing the next night and flew home with four points. That was our goal.”
The IceCaps were a tough out. They jumped all over the Falcons on Friday night, staking a 1-0 lead before the game was three minutes old. But Springfield countered with three straight tallies in the second period, setting the stage for a back-and-forth third period played at a breakneck speed.
Kevin Clark and Ray Sawada helped St. John’s pull even at 3-3, but Cam Atkinson broke their hearts by scoring the go-ahead goal with under five minutes left. That was in stark contrast to Saturday’s game; the Falcons never trailed, got 46 saves from Curtis McElhinney, and clawed out a 4-2 win.
“It felt like the travel was still lingering a little bit on Friday and it took us a bit longer to get going,” Johansen said. “But Saturday, we were much more comfortable and played a lot better as a group.
“Confidence is such a huge thing for us right now. It’s nice to be in first place and it’s a good feeling to be there after the hard work we all put in over the summer, the workouts, practices…but we’re not satisfied. We have five games left before the Christmas break and our intention is to win every single one of them.”
Of those five games remaining, only one (Dec. 15 vs. St. John’s) is at home, but there is also a lack of overnight trips in that span.
The Falcons, to this point, have had the luxury of up-and-back bus rides for the majority of their road games, making it seem less like they’re actually “on the road.”
“A big thing is that our travel schedule has been really good for the most part,” Johansen said. “That definitely helps us out, but our guys have done a great job with preparation, too; our leaders are good at stepping up and getting us ready to go when we’re on the road.”
Being a complete and successful hockey team covers several phases of the game – both on and off the ice – but Johansen said the Falcons’ tireless pursuit of consistency has been a focus since the first day of camp.
Johansen has been a model of the aforementioned consistency, putting up 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) and carrying a +10 rating through 22 games -- while playing upwards of 20 minutes per night in a top-line role.
Springfield coach Brad Larsen and his assistants have stressed the importance of doing the right things and “team-first” things that are habits for great teams, and the Falcons have been a quick study.
“Our attention to detail is easily one of our strongest assets,” Johansen said. “We’re usually in the right spots on the ice, which makes it easier to play our team game and be structured.
“Doing those little things has helped us. When opposing teams make mistakes or turn the puck over, we’re going the other way with an opportunity. That’s one of the things our team does really well. Getting to pucks first, making smart plays…that’s our game and it’s nice to see so early in the year.”