During the Washington Capitals’ pregame skate Thursday evening, after the NHL’s leading goal scorer had informed team trainers and the coaching staff that a lower-body injury would sideline him against the Minnesota Wild, forward Alex Ovechkin’s teammates began joking about the all-Swedish line assembled in his absence.
Two members remained on the top line, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, and were now joined by rookie and fellow countryman Andre Burakovsky, the hasty recall from Hershey once Oveckin’s status became in jeopardy. And once the team captain determined before warmups that he would miss his first game this season, the complexion of the Capitals changed and the Wild received a reprieve from his bulldozing checks and missile blasts.
“Obviously you get one of our best players off the ice, it’s a little bit easier for their games. I’m sure they’d tell you that,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “But that’s probably the kind of game you’ve got to win when he’s not in the lineup, lower-scoring. We were pretty good there throughout the night. It was just a couple mistakes they capitalized on.”
Not for Ovechkin’s absence did the Capitals fall to the league’s hottest team since the all-star break, 2-1. The top line skated well, threading passes through the neutral zone and using its speed to gash Minnesota’s backcheck. Johansson hit the left post and later the crossbar, twice almost cracking goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
Instead, those mistakes Orpik mentioned – an inadvertent deflection by forward Joel Ward in the crease that potted an own goal and defenseman Mike Green’s breakout turnover – left the Capitals with only their second regulation loss this season after leading first.
“I thought we handled it quite well actually,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re hot. They’re playing really well. I thought we played them really well without arguably the best player in the National Hockey League right now. I thought we stood really tall. We went toe-to-toe with them. We were one mistake away from at least a point. And we had some good looks.”
But only Curtis Glencross’ first goal with the Capitals cracked Dubnyk in his 22nd straight start since getting traded to Minnesota from Arizona. Later, Trotz said Ovechkin would remain listed as day-to-day, meaning Burakovsky would stick around for another morning, instead of meeting the Bears for their weekend road trip in Providence. The Capitals next host Buffalo on Saturday, so the Capitals could wait on Ovechkin’s status.
“He’s played well enough to stay here,” Trotz said of Burakovsky. “He’s already done that this year. I love his attitude. But I still think he continues … the more he plays, the better. He played really well tonight. I don’t have any issues with him.
“We’ll see where we are. We have the ability, we don’t know where [number] eight’s status is until really Saturday with our next game, so we’ll see where he is. We don’t have to hurry that up.”
They would, however, need to rediscover a winning gear to avoid slipping further at Verizon Center, with the lowly Sabres coming to town, the first of three Eastern Conference visitors during a five-game homestand. Facing them should prove easier than against the neutral zone-clogging, frustrating Wild, even if Ovechkin cannot go, but the Capitals still admitted how life had changed without the winger who had scored four times in the past two games.
“He takes away the eyes of their top players,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He makes them think twice. He stretches the zone, he comes in hard, he’s good one-on-one. He really makes defensemen and their forwards play tougher minutes. When you don’t have him out there, it doesn’t give them a break because we still got good players, but they get to play a different game. He’s one of the most important players in the league, that’s for sure, and he makes it tough on the opponent.”