When John Carlson skated for more than 27 minutes in the Washington Capitals’ season opener at Ottawa in October, it was a taste of what was to come during a season that would continually test his physical limits.
The veteran defenseman has topped 25 minutes of ice time in 33 of 49 games, and he is averaging a career-high 26:07. (His previous high was 24:31 during the 2013-14 season.) In nine games this season, he has been on for more than 28 minutes, all while pairing with rookie Christian Djoos, facilitating the Capitals’ top power-play unit and providing stability for a team that lost much of its defensive depth over the summer.
Coming out of the all-star break, the Capitals (29-15-5) have played just four games in 18 days. These kind of breaks — for bye weeks, all-star games or just odd gaps in the schedule — have not been good to the Capitals across the past two seasons: They have broken rhythms, started scoring slumps and offered a handful of head-scratching losses. But for players like the 28-year-old Carlson, who is taking on a heavier workload than ever, this recent lull could prove integral in the final stretch of the regular season and the playoffs beyond.
“Maybe it’s not going to help in the next week, or even two weeks, but over the course of the year, rest matters a lot if you treat it as that,” Carlson said Tuesday after the Capitals’ first day back on the ice. “So the importance of making sure you’re doing the right things and not straying too far away from what you know — I think we’re all professionals in here and take care of ourselves the right way to make these little breaks and times of rest … just optimize them as much as possible, because that stuff is all over now.”
Now, the Capitals finish the regular season with 33 games in 67 days, starting with an 8 p.m. matchup with the visiting Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday. Now, they will look to defend their spot atop the Metropolitan Division without a significant break until the end of the season. Now, they may wish they didn’t speak so poorly of those five-day layoffs while they were scrambling to rediscover their game.
After their bye week earlier in January, the Capitals dropped three straight games (although two were in overtime) and had a 153-minute stretch without a five-on-five goal. Those droughts ended in a 4-2 win at the Florida Panthers on Thursday ahead of the all-star break, and the Capitals are looking to make their most recent layoff a springboard instead of a setback. But either way, as Carlson pointed to, the Capitals will benefit in the long term from having a patch of downtime in the middle of their schedule.
During the regular season, the Capitals’ forwards don’t see a lot of fluctuation in their ice time. One reason for that, as pointed out by winger T.J. Oshie before the all-star break, is the team’s consistency at center. The Capitals have had the same four centers — Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle — for 140 of their past 144 games. Those centers play similar five-on-five minutes from game to game, which means their wingers, on average, will do the same, outside of extra time for power-play and penalty-killing duties.
This has not been the case for the team’s defensemen, after Karl Alzner (free agency), Kevin Shattenkirk (free agency) and Nate Schmidt (Vegas expansion draft) left the team this summer. The Capitals start rookie defensemen Madison Bowey and Djoos, heightening the workload for Carlson, Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik. Orlov’s average ice time is up from 19:32 last season to 23:08 this season. Orpik, regularly paired with Bowey, has seen his average time go from 17:47 to 20:33. Carlson and Orlov have also had increased roles on the reshaped power-play units.
“Yeah, probably,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said when asked whether the team is fresher at this point than it would be in other seasons. “In the short term, those long breaks are not good for your hands and your timing, so guys are going to be a little bit rusty. But long term, it could be beneficial just to give some muscles and joints time to heal up and rest. … It’s going to be real busy here, so guys should be rested and ready to go.”
The all-star break also helped the team get healthy: Kuznetsov suffered a lower-body injury against the Panthers but will play Wednesday against the Flyers, the center and Coach Barry Trotz said. Kuznetsov exited midway through the third period of that game after seeming to overextend his left leg after a faceoff. He did not return but was centering a line with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson at practice Tuesday.
That spoke to Trotz’s larger point about this recent stretch of off days, practice days and days spent waiting to get back into the normal rhythm of the NHL season.
“If you haven’t healed up by now,” he said, “you’re probably out of time.”
“The more games we have, the better we play, I think,” Kuznetsov added.
And, for the first time in a while, he and his teammates will have a chance to prove that.
Read more NHL coverage: