Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

There's no time to rest easy for the Washington Capitals

Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau:
Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau: "Actually, right now we can't rest anybody because everybody's hurt." (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

To rest, or not to rest? That is the question that is keeping Caps fans chattering on message boards and chat rooms as the regular season winds down and the playoffs approach. The Caps have secured the top seed in the East and with it, home-ice advantage through the conference finals. So should Coach Bruce Boudreau give some players a day off during the final seven games of the regular season?

On the one hand, a little rest before the playoff grind would be a good thing. On the other hand, a little rest could lead to a little rust. It disrupts lines and timing and karma and everything else.

So coach, what's the answer?

"I don't know," said Boudreau after Tuesday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. (God, I love a coach who doesn't deliver his answers on two stone tablets. I also love a coach who signs autographs for the spring-breaking horde at Kettler while wearing his skates.)

"I'm going to find out," Boudreau added. "Actually, right now we can't rest anybody because everybody's hurt. That question is taken out of the equation.

"I don't know what's best. You've seen it work both ways; you've seen it fail both ways. You've seen guys not play as hard, and that's how they get hurt. You've seen them play too hard and get hurt. It's got to be more on feel, if guys need a day they're going to get a day, if they don't need a day or if their game's not going the way it's supposed to be you play them more to get them going to where they're supposed to be. So there's so many things that go into that."

As Boudreau points out, sometimes rest works, sometimes it doesn't. The Indianapolis Colts drew fire for pulling their starters in their penultimate game, despite being unbeaten at the time, in order to rest them for the playoffs. The Colts made it to the Super Bowl before losing to New Orleans, but an undefeated regular season might have been some solace during the offseason.

With the plethora of March Madness upsets, we're hearing a lot of theories about teams beating up on each other in conference tournaments, only to fizzle when they get to the Big Dance. That one I'm not buying. Mid-majors play conference tournaments too; the Horizon League isn't as competitive as, say, the Big East or Big 12, but it's not like Butler spent the second week of March at Canyon Ranch. And the Horizon League has as many teams in the Final Four as does the Big East and ACC, and more than the Big 12, to my chagrin.

The injuries, and the rest question, are a real concern in one area: establishing playoff lines. With just seven games to go, Boudreau is running out of opportunities to experiment.

"It sort of messes with it a tad," he said. "Hopefully if we get the last couple games in, or practice, everybody's played with everybody during the course of the season. I'm hoping I'm not putting too much emphasis on it and it will take care of itself."

So when do you need to put those lines together, worst-case scenario?

"Probably two of the last three games, I would think," he said.

So that leaves four or five games in which to rest players, if you're going to. But it's not like these games mean anything. With 109 points, the Caps are ahead in the race for the Presidents' Trophy, for instance. That may be more curse than blessing -- since it was first awarded after the 1985-86 season, only seven Presidents' Trophy winners have gone on the win the Stanley Cup -- but it would guarantee the Caps home ice throughout the playoffs, including the Stanley Cup finals.

Still, you have to make it to the Stanley Cup finals for that to be of any use. It's a little akin to entering the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in the country. Once the tournament starts, that doesn't mean a lot. Trust me.

There also are individual awards to consider. For instance, Boudreau isn't going to give Alex Ovechkin a breather; he's easily the leader in plus-minus but he's second in both points and goals.

"You can't rest our top guys too much because they're in a scoring race," forward Mike Knuble said.

At 37, Knuble would be forgiven for wanting a breather as March winds down, but that's hardly the case. Hockey players "have a short window when we can play, so you don't want to not play games when you're around," he said.

As for days off, Knuble said, as long as everyone gets them, it's not a problem.

"It's kind of a luxury, maybe," he said. "I'm sure it depends on your philosophy. Sometimes, like in our situation, guys understand if it's a systematic thing where everybody's going to get a rest. If you're playing well, you don't want to come out. If you're struggling a little bit, it might be nice to step back for a second. I think as players you want to play as much as you can.

"If you start picking and choosing guys, that's hard for a player. Nobody likes to be singled out to miss a game."

So there you have it, Bruce. Days off don't matter, except when they do. Rest is good, rust is bad. Don't single out certain guys for time off, but your top scorers can't sit. Do whatever you're going to do quickly, because no one should get a breather for the final regular season game, and you need the final two or three games for line experimentation.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step, coach. After that, you're on your own.

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