Oct. 1 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: 1500 AM and 106.7 The Fan FM/Capitals Radio Network
Washington Capitals (26-18-3 in 2012-13)
Chicago Blackhawks (36-7-5 in 2012-13)
After an 18-day training camp that included eight preseason contests in a span of 15 days, the Washington Capitals are all set to embark upon their 39th season in the National Hockey League. The Caps will tests themselves against one of the league’s elite teams in Tuesday’s season opener when they face the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks in Chicago.
The Caps and Hawks hooked up twice in the preseason with Chicago winning once in a shootout and once in overtime.
“They play the way we want to play,” noted Caps goalie Braden Holtby after Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Hawks in the final preseason tune-up for both clubs. “They’re on top of everything. They’re quick on their pinches, they’re quick in transition, quick on their dumps; getting right on top of you.
“That speed is what we want to have. It’s good to see a team like that that won a Stanley Cup because of it. We can learn a lot from them, and we’ll be ready for them the first game of the year.”
Washington believes it has more team speed and more size in its lineup this season. Generally speaking, the Caps have speed on the left side and brawn on the right of their forward lines, with some overlap of course. The off-season addition of Mikhail Grabovski and the training camp switch of Eric Fehr from right wing to center also add some wheels and some beef to the middle of the Caps’ depth chart this season.
Both Fehr and Erat looked comfortable in the middle of the ice.
“It went pretty well,” says Fehr. “I got an opportunity to try a new position and I thought it went pretty well. I felt comfortable, obviously. I was familiar with my linemates when I was playing center and it looks like I might be playing center [Tuesday] Hopefully I can pick up where I left off.
“There was a lot of work put into it. I watched a lot of video with our assistant coach [Blaine Forsythe]. He was trying to help me out. It’s a completely different spot. Obviously you’ve got to play a little more behind the play and to play a lot more in the [defensive] zone. It took a lot of getting used to, but the first two games I got a good feel for it and was able to get the timing down.”
The Caps also have more youth than usual on their roster. Three rookies cracked the team’s opening night roster, and two of those – defenseman Connor Carrick and right wing Tom Wilson – are 19-year-olds. This marks the first season since 2000-01 that Washington started out with two teenagers (based on age on Feb. 1 of given season) on its opening night roster, and the first time the Caps have had at least one teen since 2003-04.
The Caps pared their roster down to the league maximum of 23 players yesterday, and were able to do and slide beneath the NHL’s $64.3 million salary cap maximum only by dealing center Mathieu Perreault to the Anaheim Duck for a fourth-round draft choice and minor league forward John Mitchell.
“By Tom [Wilson] having such a great camp,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “it put more pressure on [Caps GM] George [McPhee] to make decisions. I think [Wilson] has earned the right to be here. It affected the puzzle, and it’s always about our puzzle first. Because of that, I was experimenting with Eric and Marty [Erat] in terms of who is going to go where. I know what [Perreault] can do. And unfortunately we had to make a move.
A member of the Washington organization since he was drafted in the sixth round in 2006, Perreault was popular with teammates, fans and the media. He played in 159 regular season games for Washington, beginning in 2009-10. When Oates stated his intentions to experiment with Fehr and Erat in the middle, the handwriting was on the wall for Perreault.
“I think you think of every combination,” says Oates, “and one of the combinations was if Tom had a good camp and we thought he could play that spot, what are we going to do with someone else?
“I think Perry had a great camp. He showed up the way he finished last year and he’s a good hockey player. I told him yesterday, ‘I think George did right by you. The organization has to go in the direction they want. But we didn’t try to hide you; we didn’t try to keep you as the 13th forward. We thought you could play in the NHL and we moved you to an organization that can hopefully use you.’”
The Caps will be carrying 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two netminders at season’s outset. Left wing Brooks Laich missed the first week of camp because of a lower body injury, played in one preseason game, and then missed a couple more days on the ice. He has been skating since the middle of last week, but played in just the one exhibition contest.
Laich has said all along his target date is Oct. 1. He believes he will be ready to play on Tuesday in Chicago.
“If he said so, I guess,” says Oates. “I’ll just check with [head athletic trainer Greg Smith]. If he’s ready to go, he’ll play.”
The Capitals finished last season on a 15-2-2 spree after some tough early sledding during the lockout-shortened campaign. Washington hopes it can pick up where it left off, and that it can get incremental improvement from some of its younger core players.
“There’s always room for improvement,” says Oates. “Always. Every guy. Derek Jeter has room for improvement, right? Could be conditioning for him. Could be bat speed; how do you find bat speed now? There’s room for improvement.
“Every guy can make better reads and better decisions. Every guy can prepare different mentally. We’re going to try and find those windows because we have to. There’s no cavalry; it’s us. We have to continue to be better. I think the guys had a taste of what it’s like to play well and now we have to keep doing it. That’s why I used Boston as an example. They lost in the finals, but they’ll be the same team. They’re going to have new players but they’re going to be the same. The style is not changing. The New England Patriots are the same. That’s what I believe.”
Along with the Dallas Stars, the Capitals and the Blackhawks were the only three NHL teams to escape the preseason without suffering a regulation loss. The Caps were mostly happy with the way they played in preseason. And given that they never did get to dress their full lineup for any of those contests, they’re somewhat excited to see what that lineup can do beyond the dress rehearsal stage.
“I’ve been waiting, waiting a long time for that it feels like,” says Caps left wing Marcus Johansson. “Just to get going and to get that real rush when you start playing again is something we all want and something we’re all going to have again when we start playing on Tuesday.”
Fehr had five goals and eight points in the preseason, tying for the league lead in both categories.
“I’m really happy I was able to get my touch back a little bit. Obviously it gives you a little bit more confidence going into the regular season. At the same time, you realize you’re going to be playing against full teams now and it’s not just half teams. It’s a lot tougher; it’s a quicker pace. They don’t count for a whole lot but the confidence is great.”
Assuming Laich is healthy enough to play on Tuesday, the Caps will be carrying two extra forwards. Even after moving Perreault, Washington has 14 forwards who can make a nightly case for being in the lineup.
“It’s crazy deep right now,” says Fehr of the Caps’ forward ranks. “We’ve got a lot of players who can play the game and it’s going to be interesting how we mix and match lines throughout the season. With so much skill and where the ice time is going to get distributed, it’s a great problem to have. But it really puts pressure on guys to really play their best game every night.”
Chicago is seeking to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since Detroit turned the trick in 1997 and 1998. The Hawks also won it all in 2010.
On Sunday night, the Blackhawks held a private gathering at which they received their 2013 Stanley Cup rings. They’ll raise the Cup banner to the rafters at United Center on Tuesday before the game with the Capitals.
Nineteen of the 23 players on Chicago’s opening night roster are among the 25 Blackhawks players whose names are engraved on the Stanley Cup for 2013. The Hawks lost only seven of their 48 games in regulation last season and also earned the 2012-13 Presidents’ Trophy.
Notes: Caps captain Alex Ovechkin returned from his quick but exhilarating weekend trip to Greece, where he was the first Russian to carry the 2014 Sochi Olympic torch.
“It was great, a huge experience,” says Ovechkin. “I’m never gonna forget about it. I just was very excited. It’s going to be on my mind. When you go there you see the first Olympic Stadium, the stones form the old facilities. It’s a historic place and it’s great. It’s probably one of the biggest experiences of my life.”
Chicago lost defenseman Ryan Stanton to rival Vancouver on Monday. The Hawks waived Stanton on Sunday. Had he cleared, he would have been assigned to Chicago’s AHL Rockford affiliate. Stanton spent the last three seasons in Rockford, getting into one game with the Hawks last season.