Capitals forward T.J. Oshie’s Christmas break started with teammates, sharing a flight to Minnesota with defensemen Taylor Chorney and Matt Niskanen, as well as Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, a former Capital.
But Oshie spent the rest of his three days off with his wife’s family, watching his two young daughters enjoy the holiday and open their gifts.
Oshie said he appreciated the relaxation away from hockey, but the Capitals’ respite ended Wednesday morning and immediately the team will face a slate of tough opponents.
They face three Metropolitan Division foes in the next four games, starting Wednesday night against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. If they want to maintain their status as one of the top teams in the standings, they’ll need to refocus quickly.
“I don’t know how many games we’ve played, but it feels like Christmas is sort of the halfway point, so I feel like teams really start to kick it in gear here,” Oshie said. “Teams look at the standings and realize that there’s not much more time to mess around or much more time to — I guess take it easy isn’t the right word — but not much more time to not give it your best every night.
“We’ve got to hunker down here. Everyone else will be.”
The Capitals won’t return a full lineup in their first game back.
Fourth-line forward Chandler Stephenson missed the team’s morning skate in Arlington on Wednesday with an illness, a team spokesman said, and he won’t fly with the team to New York. Alex Chiasson, a scratch in the team’s 3-0 loss in Las Vegas on Dec. 23, will likely fill Stephenson’s spot on the right wing.
Goaltender Philipp Grubauer took shots at the end of practice and appears likely to start in net at Madison Square Garden, saving regular starter Braden Holtby for a quick turnaround when the Capitals play at home against the Boston Bruins Thursday.
But those who will play against the Rangers harped on the importance of regaining a routine out of the break.
The players developed a rhythm from late November until the Christmas break to earn 11 wins in 15 games. Now tied for second in the division with the Columbus Blue Jackets (46 points), the Capitals see their upcoming schedule as an opportunity to separate themselves from the fourth-place Rangers (42 points) and their other divisional foes.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go before we are where we want to be,” Oshie said. “So, important stretch here there next four or five games to get us back on track.”
After the Bruins Thursday, the Capitals welcome the Metropolitan Division-leading New Jersey Devils (47 points) to Capital One Arena on Saturday.
Then in January, the Capitals have six games — starting Jan. 2 at the Carolina Hurricanes — against divisional opponents. Just nine points separate the first-place and last-place teams in the divisional standings.
“Big points on the line tonight, and tomorrow and the next game, so we’ve got to be ready to go,” forward Brett Connolly said. “It’s definitely an important three games, and it’s going to be an important month, too.
“There’s a lot of games, a lot of big games, against teams in our division, so we’ve got to be ready. I think guys had a good break, and we’re ready to go now.”
Here’s how Washington’s lineup is expected to look Tuesday night against the New York Rangers:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Scratched: Taylor Chorney
Philipp Grubauer (starter)