LANDOVER -- Anyone who pays even a moment's notice to professional sports is aware of how tough it is to win on the road. Helping the perception along, of course, is the fact coaches and players have been lamenting this circumstance for eons.
Besides having to make a quick adjustment to playing in a building they probably haven't seen in a year -- the situation facing the Calgary Flames yesterday -- there's the often inhumane treatment handed out to travelers by the schedule-maker.
Sometime last summer, someone in the NHL office probably figured out that the Flames were going to be a good team this season. OK, so let's make 'em prove it. The call went downstairs to the guy making the schedule with instructions: Give these guys a huge mountain to climb along about March.
Last Tuesday, Calgary played in Detroit and lost, 5-2. Two nights later, it was Chicago and down again, 4-2. Saturday afternoon, the Flames lost to the Devils up at the Meadowlands, 6-3, before busing down here to play the Washington Capitals at the USAir Arena yesterday.
You'll note all of the opposition on the tour are above-average teams; in other words, not a rest stop (Ottawa) in the bunch.
"Wait a minute," one of the players probably said to a mate as they stepped off the bus well before noon yesterday, "didn't this place used to be called the Capital Centre?"
Seven minutes hadn't gone by in the first period and Calgary trailed 2-0. It's a cardinal rule of hockey that you don't give up a goal late in a period. The Flames did, with 11 seconds remaining, and they had to trudge into the locker room trailing 3-0.
As if things weren't bad enough, imagine having to listen to what the coach had to say. Yes, indeed, this was some mountain to climb. Maybe the only way it could have been worse is if the team had been required to do the four-city trek by bus.
However, these guys hadn't climbed to the top of the Pacific Division, weak as it might be, by tucking it in or yelling "uncle" before giving it a good shot.
The Flames got a couple of scores in the second period while holding Washington and trailed 3-2 entering the last 20 minutes despite being outshot, 24-11. They tied it after three minutes of the third period, the first time the Caps had blown a three-goal lead this season, but fell back again a minute and a half later. Surely, they were done now.
Nope. Seven minutes later, the score was tied again, and it remained 4-4 through an overtime session. Calgary, in 65 minutes of play, was able to put just 19 shots on goal while allowing the Caps 35.
"You consider a tie on the road a win," said Calgary coach Dave King. Under these circumstances, trailing 3-0, this was more like a doubleheader sweep. You could see a spring in the step of the Flames players as they headed home and the assignment of playing Detroit (Wednesday), Florida (Friday) and San Jose (Saturday). Three games in four nights is never a stroll in the park, but at home you don't notice. Clearly, it beats practice.
Meanwhile, Saturday evening at the arena, the Washington Bullets also played host to a team coming off a game the night before while they were resting. Worse, the Lakers had lost in Boston, 109-99, lately thought to be just about impossible the way the Celtics have played (winless in February).
It was hard to imagine Los Angeles playing any worse than it did before a packed house. The Bullets scored 37 points in the first period, 34 in the second. By scoring 71 points in a half, Washington nearly matched its game total of 77 against a horrible Dallas team a month ago.
Until they started to piece it together in the third period, the Lakers appeared as if they were staging the customary morning shoot-around for the pleasure of the audience. Any time the Bullets needed a hoop, one of the big guys would simply go to the rack and dunk. Or flip the ball to Michael Adams, who was 5-for-5 from three-point land for 17 points in the first 12 minutes.
Los Angeles got back to within 95-92 after three periods and was still lurking at 101-98 before the home team got lost. It wasn't anything the Bullets did while winning, 124-118, really, but what the Lakers failed to do: defense.
When things are going well, though, especially against travelers who are half-beaten before the game starts, the Bullets can go wild. In fact, Lakers coach Randy Pfund went so far as to say, "If they played us every night, I think they would win most of the time."
Against that defense they would, Randy.