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Six Days on the Road

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
In the early 1960s, Dave Dudley hit No. 2 on the country charts with a song called “Six Days On The Road.” The song, written by Earl Greene and Earl Montgomery went on to become a truckers’ anthem that was recorded by hundreds of artists over the years. Last Wednesday, the Washington Capitals embarked upon their own version of “Six Days On The Road” in which they played three games in three different time zones in a road trip that spanned six days. The trip was ordinary and extraordinary both on and off the ice.

altThe Capitals’ charter left the Washington area on a dreary and rainy afternoon. On the heels of a six-game homestand that covered the New Year’s weekend, most guys were ready to head out and ply their trade away from home.

“It’s always good to get on the road,” said goaltender Olie Kolzig. “For family guys it’s good because when they’re home they have family responsibilities with kids and things so they get a chance to sleep in on the road. It’s a good time for the guys just to get together and concentrate on hockey and not worry about the stuff that you take care of at home.”

Defenseman Jamie Heward cast some light on both sides of the coin.

“I think guys look forward to getting on the road at certain times,” said Heward. “I’m not saying you want to get away from your families, but it’s sometimes nice to get away from home and play on the road. There are lots of things guys love about the road and there are times when a week or a 10-day road trip can be too much. It’s kind of a happy medium. Guys look forward to playing on the road, but if you are hot at home and good things are happening for you, it’s tough to go out on the road.”

That wasn’t the case for the Caps. After opening the homestand with a 4-3 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 31, the Caps dropped five straight. They picked up points in each of the last two, however, falling to Florida in the shootout and Chicago in overtime. The Caps went 1-3-2 on their longest homestand of the season. The team plane was packed with equipment and players, but also tucked away in the belly of the aircraft was Washington’s 4-12-1 road record.

The Capitals landed in sunny and windy Dallas late in the afternoon. After checking into the hotel and getting settled, the team’s traveling party went off in various-sized groups to eat dinner. After dining at a nice Italian eatery just blocks from the hotel, some of us hailed a taxi and went off to a sports bar to watch some hockey.

We turned up at a place called Frankie’s only to find all the screens showing various types of basketball.  After chatting with the bartender, we managed to commandeer one of the televisions at the bar and joined the Blackhawks and Flyers game, already in progress. This arrangement was fine until the place morphed into a karaoke bar. At that point, we couldn’t get the check and cab back to the hotel fast enough.

When we got back to the hotel, we encountered Alex Ovechkin and his agents, Don Meehan and Craig Oster. They invited us to join them for a while and we did before retiring for the night. Meehan and Oster are like surrogate parents to Alex; they have more of a familial relationship than an agent/client one. It’s always enjoyable to catch up with these men and to talk about Alex and hockey with them.
On Thursday morning, the team bus headed over to American Airlines Center for the morning skate. This gave us media types a chance to catch up with the Dallas Stars, a team we see less frequently in the “new” NHL. We also chat up a few Capitals and watch as Ovechkin tirelessly and good-naturedly holds court for the local media. He talks to anyone and everyone and the clock is never running.

At one point, he is asked whether he bought a cowboy hat during his stay in Dallas. “I’m Russian!,” he responds firmly. “I’m not cowboy.”

The Dallas media relations department was excellent as were the players. We had access to whatever and whomever we needed, getting copies of league stats, game notes, our media passes for that evening and meal tickets to use in the press lounge before the game. We also were able to talk leisurely and at length with several members of the Dallas team. These are the elements that please the radio and television people. And the web guy, too.

Much attention has been paid to the outstanding crop of rookies in the NHL this season, and rightfully so. But there are also a lot of young players who were NHL rookies in 2003-04 who are really hitting their stride this season.

altDallas defenseman Trevor Daley is one of those players. Drafted with the fourth of the Stars’ four second-round (43rd overall) picks in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Daley debuted in the NHL two seasons ago, getting a 27-game baptism with the Stars. He is the only one of those four second-rounders who has made the grade so far.

An excellent skater who is gifted offensively, Daley has played in every game this season, logging an average of 19 minutes a night. Playing alongside veteran Jon Klemm, Daley is also earning some second-team power play time on one of the best teams in the league.

“It has been great,” he said when asked about his maturation this season. “I’ve been really excited to be a part of this. It helps when you have all these veteran guys here to lead the way and show you the ropes. That’s a big part of my success so far. I owe a lot to our veteran guys and to our coaching staff.”

Daley played his junior hockey for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. In 1999, he was the third defenseman drafted (10th overall) in the OHL Priority Selection. Daley was the third defenseman chosen; he was picked behind Tim Gleason (now with the Kings) and Washington’s Steve Eminger. All three of those blueliners split the 2003-04 campaign between the AHL and their respective parent clubs, and all three played in the AHL in 2004-05. All three are playing regularly in the NHL in 2005-06.

“It’s a big adjustment and I’m still learning a lot,” said Daley. “There are still things I learn every night that I need to improve on. The older guys help out a lot, and make the adjustment easier but I am still learning each time I step on the ice.”

Center Mike Modano has been the face of the Dallas organization since before the team moved from Minnesota to Texas in 1993-94. Last summer, he signed a contract extension that could keep him in Dallas through the 2009-10 season and make him one of those rare players who spends his entire career with the same organization.

“It’s pretty unique in this day and age when there is a lot of movement and a lot of guys are lured away from teams with signings and salaries,” admitted Modano. “It meant a lot to me to redo this deal last summer and stay here and finish my career here. We have done a lot of great things in Dallas as far as taking the game to a height that we never thought we would achieve down here with the fans and the way minor hockey has taken off down here. It’s pretty unique but it’s something I’d like to do.”

In less than a month, Modano will be off to Turin, Italy, where he will represent the United States in the Olympic Games for the third time in his career.

“It’s going to be fun,” Modano declared. “It’s always a great event being on that stage against the other great players of the world and having a chance to play with the best Americans, too. It’s certainly a great honor to have one more shot at it. We all feel that we have a great opportunity and a great chance to win it and I certainly look forward to it.”

Modano was also asked his opinion of Washington’s rookie sensation Alex Ovechkin.

“He is certainly an explosive player,” said Modano. “He is very good one-on-one and in open ice. He is a strong guy. He freelances out there; just goes out there and plays and whatever happens happens. It’s kind of refreshing. You don’t see that very much in the league anymore. We have a lot of great young players in the league this year and he is certainly one of them. He has done his part to try to make this team in Washington competitive and get them to where they want to be.”

The big news in Big D that day was the trade that brought defenseman Janne Niinimaa from the Islanders to Dallas just the day before. Niinimaa had just concluded his first skate with his new team and was discussing what he hoped the move would mean for his career.

“I’m hoping to restart my career here, to get back to where I want to be as a player,” he told us.

Niinimaa was then asked what he admired in the Dallas team in his years of playing against them.

“They have a wonderful flow,” he said. “They play aggressive but they are under control all over the ice. They are a hard team to play against. They don’t give up a lot and they force you hard. If they have the lead, it’s really hard to come back on them.”
The Caps would find that out first-hand a few hours later. In the game against Dallas that night, Washington made a few first-period mistakes and it seemed as though each one wound up in the back of their net. The Caps were down 3-0 after the first stanza. Washington was down 3-0 to Chicago in its previous contest and still managed to come back to knot the score and force overtime before losing, 4-3. But the Blackhawks game was at MCI Center and there is a world of difference between the Stars and the Hawks.

Although the Capitals rebounded to play well in the second and third periods, Washington ultimately fell by a 4-1 score. The Caps had a chance to make a game of it after Ovechkin netted his 27th goal of the season early in the second and the Stars took five consecutive minor penalties. But Washington’s power play was unable to close the gap. The loss was Washington’s sixth in succession.

Sullen faces and ice bags were the predominant themes in the locker room afterwards.

“They are one of the better teams in the league,” said Dainius Zubrus afterwards. “Playing at home, you can’t let that happen. We played much better in the second and the third. Against teams like that, you can push yourself to come back but it’s very hard.”

alt“We had no excuse in the first period,” admitted Brian Willsie. “We came out flat. We all knew it in the first intermission and we talked about it. In order for us to get back in the game we had to get on the body and get in on the forecheck and that’s what we did.”

One of the things that makes for a good room and good team chemistry is players who are willing to take ownership for losses and mistakes. Veteran netminder Olie Kolzig was that guy on this night, but he didn’t need to be. Kolzig was mostly upset about having allowed the fourth goal in a 4-1 loss, a goal that ultimately had no bearing on the game.

“Starting with me, I need to come up with the saves again like I did early in the season,” he rued. “That fourth goal tonight was pathetic on my part. If we want to go anywhere and be competitive again, I need to do my job.”

The players showered, dressed, grabbed some pizza and made the trek for the bus to the airport. It was creeping up on 11 p.m. in Dallas and a two-and-a-half hour flight to California was next on the agenda. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, idle since the previous Monday, were likely sleeping soundly, awaiting the Capitals’ arrival.

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