BUFFALO – Barry Trotz initially figured Mike Richards would make his Washington Capitals debut against Anaheim, two weeks after his first practice with the team. But after Richards shook off the initial rust quickly, Trotz moved up the date to the Capitals’ game at Columbus on Tuesday. The more he watched Richards in practice, the more he realized he didn’t want to wait even that long.
“I saw him this week, the other day, and I said, ‘Let’s move that up even more. Are you ready for that?'” Trotz said. “He said, ‘Yeah.'”
Richards will make his Capitals debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night, centering a fourth line of Zach Sill as the left winger and Michael Latta as the right winger. That means 32-year-old Brooks Laich will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
Trotz said Laich’s scratch is not related to his lack of point production (one goal and four assists in 43 games), and it’s likely that he’ll be back in the lineup on Sunday against the New York Rangers. Trotz said it’s just that he has two extra forwards, and with Richards in, he wants to see which players around him would be “the best mix.”
“As I told [Laich], it’s difficult to take anybody out of the lineup, especially someone who’s been around and who’s done a good job like he has, but I need to look at everybody and we get a chance with a back-to-back,” Trotz said. “He’s been an absolute pro, and he’s going to be ready to go tomorrow.”
Richards’s first game comes 10 days after he signed with Washington and eight days after his first practice with the team. He hasn’t played in an NHL game since early April, when he was still with the Los Angeles Kings. After he and the Kings very publicly parted ways, Richards started working out with his old junior hockey team in Ontario and playing with his brothers.
After joining the Capitals, Richards went through a sort of abbreviated training camp, getting up to the mid-season pace that the rest of the league was at while also learning Washington’s system. He’d skate with Trotz even on the days the team was off, and steadily, everything started to come back to him.
“Maybe a little bit of nerves, more so with the new group and stuff like that,” Richards said. “But once you get on the ice, I think everything will just kind of go away and it’ll just be hockey.”
Laich has the most shorthanded ice time among forwards, and Trotz said the plan is to split Laich’s minutes on the penalty kill between Sill and Richards. Richards could also get some assistance on faceoffs, as Sill and Latta both have experience playing primarily center.
“The thing that sticks out is his instincts are good,” Latta said. “That’s a huge part of hockey. You can be fast, you can be strong or have the best shot, but if you don’t have good hockey instincts, you’re never going to play at this level. You never really lose those.”
Latta said Richards was his favorite player growing up because Richards played junior hockey in Latta’s hometown, getting to play on the same forward line with him will be a memorable experience.
“It’s pretty cool now that I made it that far and I’m kind of playing on his line now,” Latta said. “It’s pretty cool. I’m sure there are kids watching [Alex Ovechkin] and [Nicklas Backstrom] that might play with them.”
Here’s how Washington’s lineup is expected to look on Saturday night:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams
Jason Chimera-Marcus Johansson-Tom Wilson
Zach Sill-Mike Richards-Michael Latta
Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov-Nate Schmidt
Aaron Ness-Taylor Chorney
John Carlson (lower-body)
Brooks Orpik (lower-body)
Jay Beagle (hand)