UNIONDALE, N.Y. — When the Washington Capitals finished their morning workout Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum, forward Jay Beagle returned to the locker room, grabbed a plastic bottle and mixed a recovery drink. He took a few sips then noticed rookie Andre Burakovsky, seeming curious but content with his Gatorade inside a nearby stall.
“You wanted to know why my legs never got tired,” said Beagle, who has always enjoyed out-skating others until their lungs nearly burst, and with two games over three days against the speedy New York Islanders, he and his teammates needed to feel fresh.
This “mini-series,” as defenseman Matt Niskanen said, which sandwiches Thanksgiving, offered a brief taste of a playoff atmosphere, with Game 1 in Uniondale and Game 2 coming Friday at Verizon Center. It’s the only time this season the Capitals play two straight games against the same team. In such circumstances, one night informs the next. The Capitals wanted, in Niskanen’s words, to “invest physically.”
“Back to back, with the same team, if you don’t win that first game, it makes that [second] game a thousand times harder,” Beagle said. “Even if your legs aren’t tired, you feel more tired, because you’ve lost that first game.”
The Capitals indeed lost that first game, 3-2 in overtime, but jetted home with mixed emotions. They felt confident over grabbing a single standings point and trading blows with the NHL’s hottest team. They felt resigned, because a more conscious net presence still couldn’t end their even-strength scoring drought, which extended to 130 minutes. They also felt jobbed, after the officials whistled Nicklas Backstrom for holding the stick, and with two seconds left on the penalty kill, John Tavares scored the winning goal.
But the prevailing feeling, before Coach Barry Trotz cancelled practice Thursday, was rooted in anticipation, because though the Metropolitan Division gap between New York, tied for first, and Washington, tied for third, grew to 10 points, they had another crack so soon.
“Any divisional game is really a four-point game, so there can be some huge swings if you don’t have any success,” Trotz said. “We’re right with the other teams, we’ve just got to get to third place, then try to catch the teams that are ahead of us from there. We’ve got a long way to go, a long way in our process to be better as well.”
Of course, focusing on anything Wednesday morning except the immediate task at hand would have violated the clichéd one-game-at-a-time tenant, but the Capitals admitted playing with eyes on the future. Beagle thought about centering his line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, and how they could exhaust the Islanders with long offensive-zone possessions, while Niskanen preached physicality. Both drove toward the same idea: Wednesday will affect Friday.
“Three periods, you can get through it for a night,” Niskanen said. “But six periods, you can start to see, not necessarily, but you could start to see mental mistakes, if you push them over and over again.
“A lot of times, especially within your divisions, you play back-to-back games against the same team, you can see things start to get a little nasty. Doesn’t always happen, but it could. I don’t think anyone’s going to change how they play because of that. But that can happen. You have the same guy hitting you for four, five periods in a row. That third period in the second game, you could get a little interested.”
While Trotz leaned on assistants Todd Reirden and Blaine Forsythe, both Eastern Conference veterans, to scout the Islanders, he also thought about how the first game might unfold, then considered tweaks that could be made Thursday during their off-ice meetings.
“You’ve got six periods of hockey against a team, so you’re not only thinking about tonight’s game, but what changes you would make if everything plays out the way you think it might play out,” Trotz said. “You might want to throw a twist in here or there for next game. You already put that in place to think about it, then hopefully it goes the way you expect, and you do the things you want to do. This game has a lot of twists and turns, so you react to what happens.”
In a tight game tied through the entire third period, Trotz reacted by trimming his rotation and deploying more veterans to carry the load. Only one Islanders player – defenseman Johnny Boychuk — skated more than 25 minutes. The Capitals had three: defensemen Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and John Carlson.
This could also make Washington more rested in other areas too, since Burakovsky and and fellow rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov each skated less than 10 minutes, while fourth-liners Eric Fehr (12:17) and Liam O’Brien (6:42) logged limited time too. New York, by comparison, only had one player under 10 minutes.
Perhaps the difference in ice time will prove negligible, since these are professional athletes with one recovery day in the middle. But with the first game reaching overtime, and with the Islanders already playing a “playoff-style game,” as goaltender Braden Holtby called it, the Capitals hope Friday can help them reach that level.
“You have to treat it like that, I think,” Beagle said. “You do have to treat it like that. Right now, we need the points and we need to start trying to catch these guys.”