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Off-Day Notebook: Sept. 26

September 26, 2013

Torch Bearer – Caps captain Alex Ovechkin will travel to Greece this weekend to participate in the prestigious Olympic torch ceremony. Ovechkin will depart the District on Friday night and will return to D.C. on Sunday evening, in time to sleep in his own bed and to fly with his teammates to Chicago on Monday for Washington’s season-opening tilt with the Blackhawks on Tuesday.


“I’m very excited,” says Ovechkin. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I got the news that they invited me because it was pretty hard to do that because of the schedule and all that kind of stuff. We tried to find a plane, and my agent David [Abrutyn] did a great job working it out. I’m pretty happy, I’m very excited and it’s a very big honor for me to be the first guy [to carry the torch].”


Ovechkin will be the first Russian Torchbearer to carry the flame once is has been ignited at a ceremony in Olympia, Greece on Sept. 29. Ever since Ovechkin learned of the possibility of being the first Russian to carry the torch for the 2014 Sochi Games, he has been hopeful that he and his agent and the Capitals could make all the logistics work out for all concerned. The Caps open their season in Chicago on Tuesday, and they’ll depart for the Windy City on Monday afternoon, with Ovechkin accompanying them.


“This was the middle of August, they called me and said they wanted me to do the torch stuff,” says Ovechkin, recalling when the torch carrying possibility first reached his radar. “I had a deal with Coke and I made a commercial with them; I was running with the torch as well. It’s a big thing out there. I think Olympics is the biggest event in sports. I’m very happy they wanted to bring me there and be the first [Russian] guy who is going to run the torch.”


Caps senior director of communications Sergey Kocharov and digital content producer James Heuser will accompany Ovechkin on his brief historic journey.


Missing Men – Two regular Caps forwards were absent from Thursday’s practice. Brooks Laich departed Tuesday’s practice because of a hip flexor ailment and Joel Ward has missed the last couple of days because of illness. Neither is expected to be out of the lineup on a long-term basis, and both could return to the ice as soon as Friday morning.


Are We Clear? – For most of the off-season, those who spent time crystal-balling the Caps’ opening night roster likely penciled in defenseman Tomas Kundratek as one of the team’s seven blueliners for its opening night roster. There were two reasons for that blanket assessment; Kundratek played well in his 25-game stint with Washington last season, and reassigning him to the AHL for the 2013-14 season would require him to clear waivers.


Once camp started however, Kundratek did not stand out. When he was placed on waivers yesterday, there were still five other right-handed defensemen on the Capitals’ roster. Many Caps fans were under the impression that Kundratek would not clear waivers and that the organization would lose him for nothing, but that’s not the case. The 23-year-old Czech blueliner cleared waivers today and will join the AHL Hershey Bears, who started their training camp on Monday.


“He’s just got to keep playing hockey and keep learning and improving,” says Oates of Kundratek. “He showed last year he could play in the NHL. Right now is probably a tough time, waiver wise, because a lot of teams still have full rosters, there haven’t really been any injuries or depth issues and everybody still likes their players. He’s got to survive this hiccup and play good down there and wait his turn again."


Over his last two seasons in the AHL, Kundratek has pumped home 28 goals in 104 games.


“What I talked to him about was,” begins Oates, “his skating is one of his best attributes. But the NHL is fast. So when he was here, he didn’t rely on it. He played. When he goes down there, he gets a little cocky with his skating and tries to do too much, thinking he is invincible. You put yourself out of position because down there, it’s still a good league. He’s got to work on position play and staying within the boundaries of the system.”


Down To Two – Prior to Thursday morning’s practice, Washington sent goaltender Philipp Grubauer to AHL Hershey. Grubauer and David Leggio are expected to share the netminding chores for the Bears this season while Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth man the nets in Washington.


In two preseason games with the Caps this fall, Grubauer was 1-0-1 with a 2.57 GAA and a .923 save pct. More impressively, he won a total of 34 games (19 in the ECHL and 15 in the AHL) in the minors last season, and he posted a 2.25 GAA and a .919 save pct. in 28 games with the Bears last season.


The 21-year-old Grubauer was the Caps’ third choice (112th overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft, and he is viewed as a future NHL regular. If anything happens to either Washington netminder, Grubauer is – as was the case last season – first in line for a recall.


Bullish On The Caps – NBC television hockey analyst Eddie Olczyk was in the house on Friday night at Verizon when the Caps and the Blackhawks played an entertaining preseason contest that resulted in a 5-4 shootout win for the Hawks.


During a Thursday conference call involving NBC hockey talent and executives, Olczyk had this to say when asked about the 2013-14 Washington Capitals: “If you ask me if I am buying or selling the Capitals, I’m buying.”