Perhaps Alex Ovechkin could get an assist from his father. The last time the Washington Capitals star played in windy conditions, he was a youngster in Russia. Now as gusts hit Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, the site of the Capitals’ Stadium Series game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, maybe some home video of Ovechkin’s days skating into wind could come in handy.
“He’s going to send it to me, and I’m going to watch it,” Ovechkin deadpanned.
Conditions forced both teams to cancel their Saturday morning skates, so pregame warm-ups will be the first time players will skate on the new outdoor rink to get a feel for everything from the ice to the depth perception with fans further back from the glass in a football stadium. The wind is expected to die down by the 8 p.m. puck drop, but the occasional gust could potentially add another unique wrench into the game.
“If the wind can affect a golf ball the way it does, I suppose it can affect the puck, too,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “You don’t want to put it near the glass. You might sail it over or something. I think the biggest factor with the wind, though, is whether you’re skating into it or with it. It can give you a boost or it’s going to feel like you’re dragging a weight behind you.”
There’s a tarp on the ice with wood beams holding it down as the wind continues through the afternoon. Players walked around the stadium Saturday morning to get some sense of the setup before the game. Ovechkin said he expects a “safe” first 10 minutes as both teams try to get a feel for the rink. Defensemen especially might use warm-ups to test the bounce of the boards. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said an emphasis will be to “keep it real simple early.”
“I mean, I never keep it simple, you know?” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has 22 points in the past 24 games.
“I think the wind will be a factor, for sure,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “If the wind’s at someone’s back, I think it’s definitely going to be a little bit of a factor. Some of those [Toronto] guys that can scoot around pretty good it probably won’t matter too much, but it’ll definitely be a little factor. … When the wind is at your back, I think you’ve really got to take advantage of it. You’ve really got to play north and try to build momentum.”
To make it fair for both teams with the wind, teams will switch sides halfway through the third period so to have each team skating either with or against the wind for exactly half the game. The Capitals were also part of the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh when rain made for some uncomfortable conditions.
“It doesn’t matter that the ice is bad, the atmosphere is unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “You have energy from the fans and you go and play.”
Holtby to start
There typically wouldn’t be any suspense about the Capitals’ starting goaltender in a marquee outdoor game against the Maple Leafs. But star netminder Braden Holtby has lost his past six starts and was pulled from two of them, so there was at least some question whether Trotz would give the net to Philipp Grubauer, who’s 4-1-0 with a .933 save percentage in his past eight appearances.
But on Friday, Trotz announced that Holtby would get the net, and both are hopeful that the two practice days before Saturday’s game at Navy will be beneficial.
“It always helps you to practice,” Holtby said. “For me anyways, I like to answer all the questions in my head in practice so that when game time comes around I have a clear mind. When you’re not practicing as much, you try to make adjustments in game and that rarely seems to work. So, it’s good to just get a few workdays in.”
Playing behind a team that’s allowed 32.4 shots per game this season, Holtby has a .908 save percentage and a 3.02 goals against average, both career-worst marks for him. Though the Capitals have been allowing more chances, Holtby’s also stopping fewer pucks. He’s allowed at least four goals in five of his past six starts.
“You always know that at some time adversity is going to come,” Holtby said. “You try to fight it off for as long as you can and sometimes it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen, and it’s just how you react to it and how you can build. That’s how we’ve had so much success in the last few years, the adversity that we went through before that.”
Ovechkin is just three goals away from the 600th of his career. Wouldn’t it be something if he scored a hat trick to reach the milestone on a national stage like a Stadium Series game in Annapolis?
“It will be cool, but I don’t think it’s going to happen tonight,” Ovechkin said.
“Nothing will surprise me if Ovi scored his 600th tonight,” Oshie said. “When I first got here, it seemed like I would get surprised by some of the things he’s able to do, some of the goals he’s able to score. That surprise factor isn’t there for me anymore after being here a couple years. He’s able to do stuff that pretty much no one else is really able to do as far as scoring goals. It would be surprising to get, what, three? Three away. No, no. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. He got four earlier this year.”
Here’s a good guess at how the lineup will look against Toronto:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly
Scratched: Alex Chiasson, Travis Boyd
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Scratched: Madison Bowey, Jakub Jerabek
Braden Holtby (starter)
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