SUNRISE, Fla. – After 19 days, the Capitals are finally back in a game-day routine as they resume their season here in South Florida. The schedule ramps up quite quickly for most teams coming out of the Olympic break, and Washington is no exception. The Capitals will play three games in the next four days, five in the next eight, and there’s little time to waste as the team works to keep pace in the hunt for the playoffs.
Thursday’s tilt against Florida is one of only two games in the final 23 of the regular season that the Capitals play against a team more than four points out of a playoff spot. To say Washington can ill afford to leave possible points on the table against the Panthers, who are third worst in the league, may be an understatement.
After watching other teams jump back in the fray earlier this week, Coach Adam Oates said he expects a good game regardless of the long layoff because players, especially those that didn’t play in the Olympics, are anxious to get back to game action and start fresh.
“The exciting thing is that the best hockey is yet to come, the most important games are yet to come,” Brooks Laich said. “The Olympic break might be good for us, we can reset and this is season part two where you get to clean the slate and start again. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”
The Capitals won five of their last eight games before the break and Oates was encouraged by the way the team handled those contests even as injuries piled up. He showed video of the 3-0 win over New Jersey on Feb. 8, when the Capitals scored three third-period goals after staying patient in what had been a tight, scoreless contest for the first 50 minutes.
The players also believe they started to finally find a groove with their overall defensive play before the break, the 5-2 loss to Columbus on Jan. 30 notwithstanding.
“I thought we were playing really well defensively and throughout the years that’s not something you can say a lot about our team playing well defensively,” Eric Fehr said. “You don’t want to think about our team having to score goals. That’s going to come. If we can play strong defensively and as a unit I think that will benefit us in the long run.”
Based on the morning skate, here are the lines for both teams.
Sean Bergenheim-Nick Bjugstad-Brad Boyes
Jonathan Huberdeau-Drew Shore-Scottie Upshall
Jesse Winchester-Marcel Goc-Tomas Fleischmann
Krys Barch/Shawn Matthias-Scott Gomez-Jimmy Hayes
Brian Campbell-Tom Gilbert
Mike Weaver-Dmitry Kulikov
Erik Gudbranson-Ed Jovanovski
Tim Thomas is expected to start. Scott Clemmensen will back up.