PHILADELPHIA — On Feb. 27, Travis Boyd arrived in Washington with enough clothes to last him just a week. The 24-year-old center had paid his dues in the minor leagues, so the Capitals wanted him around for the final quarter of the season. Still, cracking the lineup would be a challenge with two forwards ahead of him in the pecking order.
Then, on Sunday morning, Boyd attended a pregame meeting in Philadelphia and was told he’d be in the lineup for the fifth NHL game of his career. The bigger surprise was where Capitals Coach Barry Trotz intended to play him: between winger Tom Wilson and none other than superstar captain Alex Ovechkin, essentially serving as the first-line center.
“It’s obviously a little different when you figure out you’re going to be playing with Ovi and all that,” Boyd said. “Trotz talked to me before the game and just said, ‘Don’t worry about it; just go out there and play hockey.’ I thought we did a decent job tonight.”
Said Ovechkin: “It was fine. Of course, it’s the first time we’ve played together — me, Tom and Boydy — but I’m pretty sure he’s going [to be] better and better every game.”
By second intermission, Boyd had already made the highlight reel, spinning as he threaded a puck through two Philadelphia Flyers. Ovechkin went to the front of the net and tipped Boyd’s pass into the net for Washington’s first goal of what was ultimately a 6-3 loss at Wells Fargo Center. But right after Ovechkin scored, he pointed to Boyd, acknowledging the rookie’s slick move in earning the first point of his NHL career.
With center Evgeny Kuznetsov out with an undisclosed upper-body injury and considered “day-to-day,” Boyd could continue to be his temporary replacement between Ovechkin and Wilson. By just plugging Boyd in there, Trotz avoided disrupting his other forward trios, and the coach indicated he was happy enough with Boyd’s performance to keep him in the top-six forwards corps if Kuznetsov is not ready to play Tuesday night against the Dallas Stars in Capital One Arena. Trotz hasn’t given much of an indication as to how long Kuznetsov could be out, other than saying he expects him back by the postseason.
“That was quite an assist on his first goal,” Trotz said of Boyd. “I thought he played really well. He’s very intelligent, he’s got poise with the puck — all of those things. He just needs some experience. He has been one of the best players for us in Hershey the last couple of years. I think he is growing his game. He is a leader. He has all the attributes to be a very effective player in this league. I wanted to bump him up because of his hockey sense and his intelligence. Knowing the leadership that we have, guys like Tom and Ovi, they would embrace that and go from there because I thought that the other lines were fine.”
Boyd’s career in the Washington organization has been an exercise in patience. Two years ago, he had 21 goals and 32 assists for 53 points in 76 games with the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate. The following summer at the organization’s development camp, Trotz told Boyd, a sixth-round draft pick in 2011, that he could have an impact at the NHL level that season. But the Capitals were the healthiest team in the league, and Boyd’s NHL debut never came. He scored 16 goals and added 47 assists in Hershey last season but once again didn’t make Washington’s roster out of training camp this year. He played two games in December when winger Andre Burakovsky missed time with a thumb injury but was sent back to the AHL as soon as Burakovsky was healthy.
Then in February, Boyd came home from a Bears game to find his daughter, Hayden, was experiencing severe throat pain. He spent the next six days in the hospital with her, as an infection in her throat had to be surgically removed. The morning after successful surgery, Feb. 17, Boyd flew to Quebec on little sleep. He dedicated that night’s game to Hayden and scored four goals in Hershey’s 6-3 win over Laval.
Ten days later, the Capitals recalled Boyd with the intention of keeping him around for the rest of the season, a depth option who could get comfortable and familiarize himself with how things work at the NHL level. When Kuznetsov got hurt Friday night against the New York Islanders, that opened the door for Boyd, a natural center. Sunday’s was his third game in the lineup in the past week.
“There’s just so much that goes into it, coming into a new team, getting used to the routine of how things work, practices,” he said. “Obviously a big thing up here is how they travel and just getting used to the schedule and all that, and I think with each day and each week that kind of passes, I’m starting to get more and more comfortable as time goes on.”
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