Washington Capitals Coach Adam Oates could have called off practice Wednesday. Some of his predecessors might have at least made it optional for the team’s veterans. After all, the Capitals were only about 13 hours removed from capturing their fifth Southeast Division title in six years and locking up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference when next week’s Stanley Cup playoffs began.
Oates, though, took a different tack, one that differed from his theme of providing ample rest throughout this lockout-shortened campaign. He held a full-squad practice.
When it was over, and Oates met with General Manager George McPhee in his office to discuss strategy for two final games of the regular season, which suddenly have little impact on the standings, a decision had been made.
“We’re gonna keep playing,” Oates said. “Quite honestly, I think we’re gonna play the same exact way. Guys are used to their minutes, and because of that you’re used to your conditioning based on that.”
The Capitals don’t want to lose hold of the momentum that carried them to this unlikely division title, so the plan is to not change much. Oates will likely rely on his bottom lines a bit more starting Thursday night against Ottawa, but stars like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green will all continue to be focal points in the lineup.
Oates wouldn’t even commit to giving back-up netminder Michael Neuvirth a start in favor of Braden Holtby over the next two games when asked on Wednesday.
“I think that’s what the coaches are battling with and us,” Green said. “It’s important for us to rest, but at the same time not get out of the same mind frame we’ve been in this last stretch.”
Ovechkin noted Washington’s climb from the cellar of the Eastern Conference meant the entire team was playing at “max level” for more than a month now. But the playoff disappointments of previous years have also served as warning about letting up now.
“I think we know how important it is to be going into the playoffs playing well,” forward Eric Fehr said. “In the past, we haven’t necessarily gone into the playoffs playing our best hockey and maybe taken the last couple games off and it hasn’t worked out for us. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and we can be more prepared come playoff time.”
If the Capitals need another form of motivation, they only have to look at the standings. Ottawa currently sits in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, and could potentially face Washington in the first round of the playoffs next week. Saturday’s opponent, Boston, is battling with Montreal for the Northeast Division title.
The Capitals, meanwhile, are still trying to prove they can compete against the league’s best teams, even after the hot streak that carried them into another postseason berth. Washington is just 6-13 against teams that would qualify for the playoffs as of Thursday, although its surge included victories over Montreal and Toronto.
But one of Washington’s few clunkers recently came against the Senators just last week when the Capitals fell, 3-1, at Scotiabank Place. They also blew a 2-0 lead against Ottawa back in Jan. 29, a game forward Troy Brouwer said the team hasn’t forgotten.
“If we do end up playing them [in the playoffs], we don’t want to give them any confidence against us. They already have enough as it is,” Brouwer said.
“We have to make sure we’re bringing good hockey into the playoffs and peaking at the right time … because if you go into the playoffs on a little bit of a losing streak, it doesn’t matter where you are in the playoffs, it’s tough to turn it around as soon as the first game of the playoffs come.”