The last time Niskanen played, the season was five games old, Taylor Chorney and Aaron Ness were both in the lineup over rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey and the team was still trying to discover an identity after offseason roster turnover. A month later, Djoos and Bowey have moved ahead of Chorney and Ness in the pecking order, and the Capitals have won six of their past eight games, allowing just 16 goals in that span.
It makes you wonder how much better it will get with Washington’s top defenseman back.
“We’re going to need a game or two to see where he’s at as well,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “When you don’t play for that long, you can work as hard as you want, but you need to play in real games and get back into it. He’s a quality defenseman and a person, and he’ll stabilize things a little bit back there just because of his experience and the competitive person that he is.”
Said Niskanen: “Simple is effective. At least for your first couple shifts, you want to get through them and get involved in the game, but maybe less eventful is better. I’ll try to play really simple and keep the game moving along until I get my feel and my timing back.”
Before Niskanen got hurt, he was skating more than 23 minutes per game, matching up against opponents’ top goal-scorers and also playing on the penalty kill and the second power-play unit. Niskanen first started practicing with the team again on Thursday, and though his conditioning wasn’t an issue after that first practice, his timing felt off.
“I felt way better the next day actually,” Niskanen said. “Just one practice under my belt, there was tremendous improvement there for me. Now game speed is going to be a whole different thing. I’ve had some contact over the past couple of days that was harder than just skating, so now game speed and game contact, that’s going to be another level, and there’s no real way to replicate playing a game without playing a game.”
The trickle-down effect of Niskanen’s return could mean a lighter load for John Carlson, who has averaged 27:47 in the 13 games Niskanen has been out of the lineup. In that time, Djoos has played in every game and Bowey missed only one, and it was due to an undisclosed lower-body injury. Both have averaged more than 14 minutes per night, seemingly improving with every game. With Niskanen back, the Capitals’ blue line, once considered a weakness for the team, could provide Washington with some stability.
“There’s always a blessing behind everything that sort of maybe doesn’t go your way, and the blessing is that we have two young defensemen that we needed to develop for our organization,” Trotz said. “It’s a lifeline for every team in the National Hockey League. We didn’t have any choice, and they’ve grown as young men and as players in this league, so it’s going to make us a better hockey team as we go along.”
Tyler Graovac goes to Hershey for conditioning
Niskanen isn’t the only player getting healthy for the Capitals. The team announced that forward Tyler Graovac was sent down to the American Hockey League on a long-term conditioning loan after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 17. He can spend no longer than six days or three games with the Hershey Bears before the Capitals have to either bring him back to Washington or waive him.
“You can skate laps until you’re blue in the face, and day in and day out, you can battle, but you’ve got to get into games,” Trotz said. “What I’ve found with shoulder injuries over the years is that you get bumped around and you don’t trust it. . . . We want him to get his confidence back, we want to get some of his game skills back and then when we feel comfortable that he’s ready to go, I want him to be able to jump into our lineup and be able to prove what he can do.”
Here’s how the Capitals’ lineup is expected to look against the Predators on Tuesday:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Devante Smith-Pelly
Chandler Stephenson-Nicklas Backstrom-T. J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Brett Connolly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Nathan Walker
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Scratched: Aaron Ness, Taylor Chorney
Braden Holtby (starter)
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