Friday morning at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, the line between a team desperate for another win and a roster full of players set to scatter across the globe blurred.
Distractions abounded. An inordinate number of television cameras ready for interviews with Olympians were present. So were national jerseys for players to don after they took off their sweaty practice gear. The Sochi Opening Ceremonies played on televisions in the lounges, and those who won’t be heading to Russia discussed their vacation plans.
Before the Capitals’ five Olympians can board charter flights on Sunday, before other veterans head to Florida, Turks and Caicos, Aspen or another relaxing locale, they must focus for one more game.
Washington hosts the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night at Verizon Center in its final game before the NHL’s Olympic hiatus. New Jersey, like the Capitals, is one of the half-dozen teams within five points of each other fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
While the Capitals cannot enter the break in a playoff spot even with a win — they’re three points out entering Saturday’s games — a victory would allow them to spend these next few weeks on the upswing rather than stewing about the latest missed opportunity.
“At this point in time we’ve put ourselves in a pretty tough spot going into the break, where we are in the standings,” said winger Eric Fehr, who is heading to Florida with his wife and daughter. “Just to have two more points will make it a little bit easier to relax over the break.”
The Capitals have won two of their past three games, coming through with a third-period rally to capture a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, but even Coach Adam Oates acknowledged that it’s a strange dynamic to prepare for a game with so much on the horizon for the players.
“It’s kind of a human nature thing where you’re focused but you’re not,” Oates said. “Today was just a skate to keep them involved, and [Saturday] we’ll have a game day routine, and I think the routine will allow them to get into the game. I think once we start it will be fine.”
No player has had more asked of him in the lead-up to the Olympics than Ovechkin, an ambassador for the Games and face of the tournament. But for one more day Ovechkin’s main task is to help the Capitals gain another two points.
“I think everybody knows we need the points. In two weeks we’ll be back on track and focus on the NHL and getting to the playoffs,” Ovechkin said. “Those points we have to take. They’re going to be important whether you’re going to the Olympic Games or not.”
An NHL roster freeze went into effect at 3 p.m. Friday and runs through 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 23, the day of the gold medal game in Sochi, prohibiting trades and allowing players not traveling to Russia a genuine midseason break. It’s a chance for most to heal nagging injuries and rest, but in certain instances players can participate with an American Hockey League affiliate.
Three players on the Capitals’ active roster — Casey Wellman, Julien Brouillette and Patrick Wey — will head back to the AHL’s Hershey Bears, where they will continue to compete during the NHL’s break. The rest, all of whom earned time off based on games played this season, will find a way to recharge for 10 days until NHL dressing rooms officially open again at 2 p.m. on Feb. 19.
Then they’ll reconvene, with players returning from Sochi as their national teams are eliminated, for an abbreviated training camp and one final regular season push. When the Olympics conclude, the Capitals will have only 23 games left, and they won’t have time to waste.
“It can be a little bit grueling when you do come back, trying to get your timing back, trying to get your game shape back,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “We know when we get back we’ve got seven of nine days of tough practicing to make sure that the timing’s there, the battling’s there, the mentality’s there, because we can’t miss a beat when we come back; otherwise it means no playoffs.”