After finishing up a spell of five games in eight nights with a 4-3 overtime win over Metropolitan Division rival Columbus on Tuesday night at Verizon Center, the Capitals have the luxury of a couple of days between games for the first time since Nov. 3-4. Washington spent the first of those days – Wednesday – practicing at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
Despite a hiccup that cost them a point late in the third period on Saturday in Phoenix, the Caps are happy to have emerged from the eight-day stretch with a 3-1-1 record and mostly good health.
Defenseman Mike Green did not join his teammates on the ice for Wednesday’s session. He suffered a lower body injury in Tuesday’s game against Columbus and it is not yet known whether he will be able to play on Friday in Detroit.
“We’ll see,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of Green’s availability for Friday. “We obviously hope so. We’ll evaluate him [Thursday].”
Green is tied for sixth among all NHL defensemen with 11 assists and is tied for 10th with 11 points. His average of 24:18 per night is tops among all Washington defensemen. Green logged 23:03 in Tuesday’s game, playing at least seven minutes in each of the three periods. He also skated 53 of the 94 seconds of overtime.
In addition to playing five games in eight nights, the Caps flew five hours to Phoenix on Friday, played in Phoenix in Saturday, flew about two hours to Denver late Saturday, played – at altitude – in Denver on Sunday and then flew home, arriving around 4 a.m. on Monday, fewer than 40 hours before opening puck drop against the Jackets.
Because of the rigorous schedule and the travel, it wouldn’t have been surprising for Washington to come out slow and/or flat in Tuesday’s game against the Jackets, but they didn’t.
“Actually I didn’t think we started slow,” said Oates after the game. “I thought we started better than I anticipated because I thought we were going to start slow. We had slow moments in there; I thought maybe we got a little fatigued.
“It’s tough sledding out there. The hockey is really, really hard hockey these days, 5-on-5. To go 60 minutes is very difficult. You’re going to have your waves; you’re going to give them their waves. We’ve got to know what to do when we’re in those situations. It’s a little frustrating at times, because we’ve got easier plays than we’re making, which is maybe mental fatigue.”
The hockey is really hard. In seven of the Caps’ nine losses, they’ve been no worse than a goal down midway through the third period. In four of their 10 wins, they’ve needed a shootout to get that second point, and on Tuesday they needed overtime.
There are no easy nights in the NHL. The Caps had a lead in the third period on Tuesday, and so did Columbus. Neither team could hold it until the end of the 60th minute.
“I think maybe we were a little tired,” noted Oates. “Maybe the trip caught up to us a little bit. We played better early than I thought we were going to, and then I thought it just showed itself. There were a couple of breakdowns.”
According to Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, the team’s conditioning – a sore point in the early going last season – has been better and was a factor in Tuesday’s game.
“We pride ourselves on conditioning,” says Brouwer. “We are a skating team; we want to move up and down the ice as quick as possible. So guys here are in good shape. I can only speak for myself – getting home at 4 [a.m.] and then being home in bed at 4:15 and I was up at 7:30 with my daughter. That’s not a whole lot of sleep.
“You’ve got to find ways to pick up that extra sleep and pick up that rest. It starts with making sure you get to bed at a good time, you’re eating the right things and taking care of your body. Because you’re going to have a few situations where you’re going to be without a lot of sleep.”
“[Tuesday] night, I thought we had a good start to the game. Our first line was out there creating some good buzz and getting some good opportunities. I thought all our guys knew how important this home game was.”
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby was playing in the AHL at this time last season, so as grueling as the schedule and travel may have been for the Caps over the last eight days, he has endured worse and it’s still a semi-recent memory. He believes there’s no reason to come out flat any night, regardless of travel and schedule.
“I don’t have much sympathy for those type of things,” says Holtby. “Except for a couple of guys that haven’t had to grind it out in the minors, everyone has been through tons more travel issues than what we put up with in the NHL. It’s about as easy as you can get here. I don’t really care what the travel is, time change, or whatever. You should be prepared to play every game and there shouldn’t be an excuse for that.”
Speaking of the minors, defenseman Dmitry Orlov was reassigned to AHL Hershey prior to the practice. Orlov will join the Bears in Charlotte tonight where they’ll take on the Checkers Wednesday and Thursday nights. It’s possible that Orlov would return to Washington after getting into those games with the Bears, but that remains to be seen.
The Caps will practice again on Thursday prior to their afternoon departure for Detroit; they play the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night.