VOORHEES, N.J. – The fans stacked five deep against the boards at Flyers Skate Zone, dressed in orange and banging on the glass, because hockey was back. There were fights in the first period, two within 27 seconds. After intermission came goals, two from Philadelphia Flyers prospects within 45 seconds. And by the end of a sloppy, combative performance from the Capitals rookies on Tuesday afternoon, the visitors had lost the scrimmage, 3-0, but all seemed equally thrilled that a new season had dawned.
“It’s been a long summer,” goaltender Pheonix Copley said.
Five days of practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex turned into a short bus ride up Interstate 95, which in turn springboarded Washington’s 20 prospects toward two days of rest and training camp. Most are expected to be invited back for Friday’s start of the preseason, and the eight games scheduled after, onto a deep roster of more than 60 scheduled to be released Wednesday.
But here in the Philadelphia suburbs across the Delaware river, with Hershey Coach Troy Mann leading the charge on the bench and Capitals brass watching from upstairs, came the first chance for everyone to impress in a game scenario, after all the practices and testing had made them so anxious for this moment.
Early on, that manifested through hard checks, frequent jawing and, on two occasions, gloves dropping. Last season, when Capitals and Flyers rookies met, the two sides agreed on a no-fighting rule that quickly fell by the wayside in the latest installment. With 6 minutes 7 seconds left in the first period, center Liam O’Brien got body slammed into the ice by Sam Morin, which made perfect sense given the seven inches O’Brien was giving up to his opponent.
O’Brien and Morin were former teammates in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Less than a half-minute later, the tattooed blue-liner known affectionately as “Big Mike” Cajkovsky responded to a hit on teammate and first-round pick Jakub Vrana by going after forward Austin Fyten, though that scrum ended within seconds as a draw.
“We tried to play physical,” Cajkovsky said. “I tried to fight for the team, keep the team going.”
By the second period, after Copley departed without allowing a goal and 18-year-old Vitek Vanecek (a second-round pick in 2014) entered, the Capitals quickly lost momentum. Cajkosvky committed a defensive-zone turnover in the middle of the ice, which Philadelphia forward Petr Straka intercepted, switched from forehand to backhand and flicked into the net, glove-side on Vanecek.
Though Vanecek later ceded a wraparound goal from Nicholas Aube-Kubel, Mann was left impressed with the work of his two netminders, who altogether faced 32 Flyers shots.
“I thought both goalies were our best players,” he said. “I thought Cops was outstanding in that first half. Vitek, it was a breakaway dangle on the breakaway goal. The second was a bit of a back door, we thought it might have been off a guy’s skate, but overall I thought he looked solid as well.”
Mann’s biggest issue came with the prospects Coach Barry Trotz and his staff had their eyes on most. Andre Burakovsky made his pseudo-debut at center after switching to the position during Capitals development camp, leading the top line of Vrana and Caleb Herbert.
“Certainly our guys like Burakovsky and Vrana, you can see the skill level of these kids, and sometimes when you haven’t played together and you’re trying to impress the brass sitting upstairs, sometimes you get a little bit too individualistic and I thought at times our key players were on their own, trying to do too much,” Mann said. “We talked to them after the second period about it, but again they were out there. Wasn’t lack of effort or anything like that, but as we know, hockey’s a team game and we didn’t look in sync at times.”
By the third period, when the Capitals were battling back from a 2-0 deficit – it later became 3-0 on an empty-netter with two minutes left – Mann promoted O’Brien to the first line alongside Burakovsky and Vrana, impressed with O’Brien’s fourth line and its ability to chip pucks into the offensive zone.
“One of the problems was we were trying to carry the puck too much through the neutral zone and we weren’t chipping the pucks deep and we were trying too many one-on-ones at their blue line and consequently weren’t getting any sustained pressure,” Mann said. “That’s why I was trying to get O’Brien’s line out there a little more because they seemed to be the one line that was chipping it in and trying to go after it at least, where the other lines were just trying to make plays and consequently we didn’t get enough O-zone time.”
But that delves too deep into the inconsequential, especially for an assembly of players who will be split into several groups for training camp on Friday. By then, the NHLers will fold into the mix and the prospects will be back on the bottom of the totem pole, fighting for those brief moments in the spotlight, or just to be noticed.
“I think it’s definitely going to be good,” said defenseman Madison Bowey, who served as Washington’s captain. “I know it’s definitely been a busy week and a lot of our bodies are sore. It’s taken a toll on all of us. I think two days will be really good for us. The real business starts in a few days. After that, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”