They had worked themselves ragged and skated their legs into jelly through the first two days of training camp, so when the 20 Washington Capitals bussed over to Verizon Center for their preseason opener on Sunday afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz cautioned them to expect fatigue.
“I’m pretty sure I know Buffalo has a hard training camp, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as hard as ours,” he recalled saying. “And so we’re going to be a little tired, our legs might not be there in the third, so when you’re tired, you got to make sure you make poised plays and you find ways to bend but not break.”
In a 1-0 victory over the Sabres, the Capitals managed just that, making center Andre Burakovsky’s first-period goal stand up behind a combined shutout from goaltenders Pheonix Copley and Braden Holtby. The mix of veterans and rookies withstood an aggressive fore-checking Buffalo team, held on through a second period spent mostly stalled in their defensive zone and proved enough to their new coach to leave him pleased.
“It was a young group we’re playing, so I’m pretty good with it,” Trotz said. “I thought in the third period, we were back on our heels a little bit. Didn’t panic. No panic on the bench. One goal game and you’re going to have to win those games.”
The difference came when forward Jason Chimera dug out a puck along the boards behind the Buffalo net and whipped a pass to Burakovsky in the right slot. Trotz had put Burakovsky beside the seasoned Chimera-Joel Ward combination precisely for moments like these, so the 19-year-old Swede could experience playing on an NHL line. He was patient after Chimera’s pass, avoiding the instinct to one-time it and instead fired a wrister high-glove past goaltender Nathan Lieuwen.
“I was kind of shocked, but it feels really good to have first goal and after that goal, I could relax a little bit more and feel more comfortable out there and just keep playing hard,” said Burakovsky, who later centered a line with Alex Ovechkin and Casey Wellman in the third period.
On the opposite end, Copley withstood six shots for a clean first period before giving way to Holtby, who was perfect against 19 shots in the second and third. Copley handed a breakaway off a defensive-zone turnover from defenseman Matt Niskanen, while Holtby began his night with two quick saves right into his chest.
“It was good to have a mental challenge from the start,” Holtby said. “Made me focus a little more. Just glad we played well. We played very structurally well for the first game on the third day of camp.”
All told, the Capitals finished even with Buffalo in shots on goal (25). Counting those blocked and missed, the Caps held a 52-43 advantage. Some more notes from Sunday night, when the fans chanted “red” during the national anthem and “Let’s go Caps” at the first horn, because that all meant hockey was back in town again:
>> Nearing the end of the second period, Ovechkin barreled into the offensive zone, on a beeline after a loose puck. As he approached the boards, he lost his footing and slid hard on his back. The captain appeared shaken up after that, slowly skating to the bench, where he grabbed his left wrist. However, the buzzer sounded shortly after and Ovechkin didn’t miss a shift in the third period.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “But again, still don’t feel 100 percent. I lose lots of pucks in the neutral zone so I have to work on it.”
Ovechkin, who returned to the left wing after a two-year stint on the right under Adam Oates, also drew praise from Trotz for his defensive work.
“Ovi made an outstanding play in the first period,” he said. “Defensively he was bumping and he was doing a lot of good things. I was happy with him.”
Trotz wasn’t specific on which play he was referring to, but Ovechkin took a smart slashing penalty on a Capitals power play when a turnover gave short-handed Buffalo a clear path towards the net.
“Do whatever it takes, especially when first day, first game, it was I think second power play, you want to feel the puck, create some opportunities, but you make mistake and have to be responsible,” Ovechkin said.
>> The Capitals locker room received an offseason makeover, getting new wooden stalls and a fresh carpeted logo in the middle, which was sectioned off to prevent anyone from stepping on it. The change was significant enough that Trotz was asked about it during his postgame news conference.
“I think there’s a pride that we should have in our organization,” he said. ‘It’s about what’s on the front of the jersey, not what’s on the back of the jersey, and what’s on the front of the jersey is important and should be a little bit sacred. Plus it makes the room look great. We’ve roped it off, so you cannot step on it. That’s a pride that we want and a standard in the org that we want. I know in the past they’ve put a rug over it, and we’re still stepping on it. I know it’s there. So I asked our trainers to rope it off. Few things are sacred now in sport, and I want our logo to be something we’re very proud of.”
>> Holtby on his performance: “There’s some good, some bad, some stuff I got away with,” he said. “Screens were hard. That’s always tough in the first few games of training camp. It’s hard to replicate that in practice, so I lost a few pucks in the third period. Fortunately, they didn’t go in and our guys did a good job boxing out. It was a different experience. Third day in camp, but it went well.”
>> Forward Tim Spencer, signed in August to a one-year deal by Hershey, and former Washington/Hershey defenseman Tyson Strachan dropped the gloves in the second period. They both received five-minute majors for fighting and an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct, because they removed their helmets before throwing punches.
Ward was whistled for high-sticking in the second period.
>> Next up: The Capitals head to Philadelphia on Monday to face the Flyers. Those not traveling will practice in Ballston starting at 9:30 a.m.