It’s been a month and a half since Caps center Jay Beagle has suited up to play in a game for Washington. He last saw action in the Capitals’ 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Oct. 16 at Verizon Center, and has been a healthy scratch in each of Washington’s last 18 games.
Tonight, Beagle is back in the Caps lineup, replacing Brooks Laich in the middle of the team’s third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward riding the wings.
Laich missed Wednesday’s morning skate, but played in that night’s game against the Ottawa Senators, a 6-4 Capitals loss. But he won’t play this afternoon against the Montreal Canadiens and his status is unclear for tomorrow’s game against the Islanders on Long Island.
The last time Beagle was out of the Washington lineup for that long was when he was sidelined for two and a half months because of a concussion during the first half of the 2011-12 season. Beagle missed 31 straight games from mid-October to late December that season.
“That’s something that I’ve actually been drawing on,” Beagle says, of his long absence from the lineup two years ago at this time. “I felt like I came back and played some of the best hockey I’ve ever played after that long of a break, which was actually close to three months. I’m coming back in this situation a lot stronger; I was able to work out the whole time and stay in shape instead of just sitting on the couch and waiting for my symptoms to go away.
When Beagle returned to the lineup in late December of 2011 after missing nearly half the season because of a concussion, he spent the next several weeks playing minimal minutes, and he was also a healthy scratch for nine of the next 24
games. But in late February of 2012, then-coach Dale Hunter began to develop confidence in Beagle, and Hunter began entrusting the big pivot with a larger role.
Beagle played 15 or more minutes in 12 of the Caps’ final 17 games that season, scoring four goals during that span. Beginning with a Feb. 20, 2012 game against the Hurricanes in Raleigh, Beagle started a run of 72 straight regular season games in the lineup, a streak that came to a halt when he was a healthy scratch for the 2013-14 season opener in Chicago on Oct. 1.
Even though he hasn’t played in a while, Beagle is always in top physical condition, and he has worked tirelessly and without complaint while sitting out for the last six weeks. Conditioning won’t be an issue with him coming back into the lineup after such a long absence, but he and the Caps’ staff have been working on replicating battles and other game situations in practice.
“It’s never the same,” admits Beagle, comparing practice to game situations. “But me and [assistant coach Blaine Forsythe] have been really working a lot on some corner stuff. He’s been making sure that the other guys who have been sitting out stay in it and do some corner work, have some pressure on us, so we can get the feel of not just skating lines, to have the feel of touching the puck. I think that keeps you in it more and also it keeps you more in game shape.
“You can skate lines and skate laps as much as you want, but as soon as you go in a corner and you hold your breath maybe for five or six seconds and try to wheel out of the corner or something, you usually come out of the corner out of breath. So it’s definitely different conditioning that way. We’ve tried to stay on that. I don’t think conditioning will be a factor, but timing could. The first couple of shifts, getting out there, I definitely want to keep it simple and just play my game.”
Playing with Chimera and Ward should also help give Beagle a boost in his return to the lineup. That tandem has displayed a knack for giving a lift whichever pivot mans the middle of the line. Mikhail Grabovski and Laich both played some of their best hockey this season between Chimera and Ward. Beagle has played with both players before, and thinks that sliding between those two for his first game back should be beneficial.
“I definitely think so,” says Beagle. “I think they’ve been playing the best hockey that I’ve seen them play. And by far, they’ve been one of our top lines. They’ve been strong every night. They’re very easy to play with and very easy to read. I love playing with them. They play the style that I like to play. It should be fun.”
After sitting out for about six weeks, Beagle is chomping at the bit to get back into the lineup.
“I’m very excited, very excited to play,” he says. “I worked hard in the gym and took this time to do some of the summer workouts that I couldn’t do because of the surgery during the summer and I feel stronger than I did at the beginning of the season.”