Barry Trotz’s advice to Shane Gersich was to just play as naturally as he could — “Don’t get paralyzed by thinking, ‘I can’t make a mistake,’ ” Trotz said he told the rookie about to make his NHL debut. The Washington Capitals coach wanted to get a glimpse of what he has in Gersich, who just signed with Washington on Friday after three seasons at the University of North Dakota. Gersich followed Trotz’s orders, seemingly fearless as he sped toward the net with every shift, coming oh-so-close to a goal on several occasions. And by the end of the game, Trotz had seen enough to want more.
“I was really impressed with him,” Trotz said. “First game, if he’s got better than that, I’m really excited for sure.”
In a penalty-heavy game, Gersich played just 8:52 because he’s not on any special teams and Trotz didn’t deploy him immediately coming out of a power play or penalty kill. But Gersich made the most of his time with three shots on goal and two attempts blocked in the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers. Trotz has acknowledged that he’s still undecided on his bottom-six forward corps for the postseason, and Gersich’s impressive debut likely earned him a second game in the lineup, Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes, and he could vault himself into the competition for playoff playing time.
“I loved it,” Trotz said. “I thought he was dangerous. Every time I put him on the ice, he seemed to create something. He was picking guys’ pockets. He was getting to those areas. His speed is undeniable. He’s got some good hockey sense. It was a really good game for him.”
Said Gersich: “I actually felt really good. I’m probably playing on a lot of adrenaline right now.”
Though Washington had won Monday’s game against New York, 4-2, Trotz still made several changes to his bottom two lines before the teams met again Wednesday. With postseason-bound opponents coming up on the Capitals’ schedule, Trotz wants to use some of those final regular season games as playoff dress rehearsals. To continue experimenting with what mix of players he likes best on the third and fourth lines, Trotz scratched wingers Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly, two of the team’s more productive players this season. Gersich played with third-line center Lars Eller and right wing Devante Smith-Pelly, one of the forwards seemingly still in competition to solidify his postseason lineup spot.
Trotz had wings Chandler Stephenson and Alex Chiasson beside fourth-line center Jay Beagle, and though Chiasson got 1:38 of power-play time, he still finished with the least time on ice (6:36). The Capitals intend to recall Travis Boyd from the American Hockey League next week, and it’s possible he will center the fourth line with Beagle as his right wing. That potentially leaves three spots on the bottom-six wings for six players, a stiff competition for Gersich, who has been on the roster for less than a week. But his speed could be an asset for a team that has occasionally struggled against faster teams.
“I think he played really well,” Eller said. “He brought a lot of energy, and he was winning battles. He was always trying to go forward or go to the net. So he was pretty easy to play with from my standpoint. I think he did great with the opportunity he was given.”
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