Caps in limbo between Olympic break, NHL stretch run

February 21

With six days to go before they play another game, the Capitals, who last played on Feb. 8, are stuck in Olympic break limbo.  (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Even after three days of practice, the mood in Arlington is still a little strange. Sure, the Washington Capitals who didn’t travel to Sochi have reassembled and were on the ice working through daily drills. But their first game is still six days away, five Olympians have yet to return to Washington and there are ice-resurfacers to drive and nationalistic trash talking to be done in the dressing room before the gold medal is decided.

Adam Oates was an assistant coach in Tampa Bay back in 2010, the last time the NHL hit pause for three weeks so players could represent their countries. It was odd then when they began to ramp back up, so he knew it would likely be the same this time around.

“Guys are trying to get back into it but [are] not really into it, not really motivated to yet — but you know you’re supposed to,” Oates said. “It’s hard when there’s nothing in sight. There’s no real goal right now, so we’re just trying to leave the guys alone and just get some sweats.”

Most players that didn’t go to Sochi went on vacation to one tropical location or another so they could rest while distancing themselves from the game. Returning to Washington and practice would seem to have the excitement of going back to school following a long break.

“Everyone’s excited to get to the rink, excited to play again. I wish we could have that couple week break every year. It would be a nice little recharge in the middle of the season,” Braden Holtby said. “I think you can tell everyone is excited to get going in practice. Everyone’s out there 15-20 minutes early, which is unheard of for our team. It’s good to see.”

But with several days still before everyone on the roster returns, Oates is conscious of balancing the need to get players back into game shape while refocusing them for the push to the playoffs without allowing practice to become stale.

So for these first few days, skates have been short and focused on conditioning. Friday marked the first day that any real contact was involved as players did some one-on-one battle drills. In order to maintain the structure of a true practice and bring in a few players that weren’t off for 10 days, the Capitals called up Michael Latta, Casey Wellman, Ryan Stoa and Dane Byers from Hershey for two practices to push the pace before sending them back to the Bears on Friday afternoon.

Oates didn’t even do video sessions in the first few days, so as not to overwhelm the players. Deciding what specifically to focus on, both for the group and individuals, is also tricky given that the Capitals haven’t played a game since Feb. 8.

“We’ll start doing individual stuff, talking about things the next couple of days,” Oates said. “Just trying to get them back into a groove, then when everybody’s back, some real practices to get ready.”

The Capitals’ Olympians likely won’t be back in practice until Tuesday at the earliest, though.

Alex Ovechkin remains in Sochi with his father, who underwent heart surgery earlier in the week. The Capitals said they hope to have an update on when the star winger may return over the weekend.

Martin Erat, whose Czech Republic squad was also eliminated in the quarterfinals, is planning to take a few days in Nashville where his wife, Vera, recently gave birth to their second child before heading back to Washington, according to General Manager George McPhee. And Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and John Carlson all still have games to play in the Olympics.

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