Tom Petty — or maybe it was Prince Charles — once said that the waiting is the hardest part. Saturday, after the Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a Game 5 victory over the Rangers, this week stretched out before the players like snow days to school kids — unexpected, delightful free time. Sure, they’d practice and work out and go through their regular routines. But no one would be shoving them into the boards or whacking them in the head with pucks for a few days.
But that few days turned into four days, and counting. What no one expected was that the other three conference quarterfinal series would each go seven games, leaving the Caps with plenty of time to wait for the next round and to wonder when it would start — and who they’d face once they got there.
After Wednesday’s practice — described by pretty much everyone as “up tempo” — a reporter, joking, asked Boudreau if he had plans for Wednesday night.
“Yeah, actually, from about 7:30 to 10, anyway,” fired back Boudreau, leaving no doubt he’d be watching the last two quarterfinals, which were won by Boston and Tampa Bay to send the Lightning to face its Southeast Division rival in the second round.
Asked if he had a preference for Wednesday night’s winners, he said: “I hope it goes to five overtimes, I hope it’s really hard hitting, all those things. That’s what you’re looking at. You’re watching how every team’s playing, are they doing this, are they doing that.”
There are two schools of thought about the Caps’ current situation — just as there have been about pretty much all of the Caps’ situations this season. One is that the rest will be good for the Caps and bad for their gassed opponent. The other is that a team that wins a seven-game series has momentum going into the next round.
One example, from last season: The Canadiens beat the Caps in seven games in the first round, then lost the first game of the second round, 6-3, to the Penguins. The Habs won that series in seven games but lost the first game of the Eastern Conference finals, 6-0, to the Flyers, who eventually won the series.
Another example from last season: The Blackhawks swept San Jose in the conference finals, then had five days off before facing Philadelphia in the finals, where they won the first game, 6-5, and eventually won the Stanley Cup.
Alex Ovechkin likes that second scenario.
“It’s tough, but still . . . we’re going to be more fresher than our opponent,” he said.
But it’s a fine line between “rest” and “rust.” Is there a danger that the long break may make the Capitals a little bit of both?
“Most guys are doing a normal season routine,” John Erskine said. “You’ve got to stay ready. That first game back, we’re going to be rusty. Our practices, we’re trying to have really high-tempo practices so that when that first game comes, we’re not behind the eight ball in the first period.”
The Caps’ workout Wednesday wasn’t long, but as with earlier practices it was intense and fast-paced.
The team welcomed three more players from the Hershey Bears — Matthieu Perrault, Patrick McNeill and Steve Pinizzotto were recalled, joining AHL teammate Braden Holtby — which made the locker room a little bit snugger. There was no change on the injury front: Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman are out until they’re not, essentially. The mood in the room seemed loose, but the word “antsy” was used pretty often.
“It’s been good,” Matt Hendricks said of the time off. “We’re getting the rest we needed. The best thing about this is, now you can get that anxiety going again, you get that feeling, that tingle when you’re ready to go. You could feel it today in practice, the guys were working hard and the tempo was very high. It’s just exciting, it’s an exciting time and you could sense it.”
Just to be clear: He wasn’t talking about Alzner’s haircut.