Jay Beagle was the last Washington Capitals player to take the ice Tuesday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, nimbly skating past his teammates at the end of practice. He was skating by himself as the team returned to the locker room, alone and questionable for Thursday night’s Game 1 of the Capitals’ first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Washington Coach Barry Trotz has already answered some of the more pressing questions facing his postseason lineup this week — he revealed Tuesday that he is starting Philipp Grubauer over Braden Holtby in goal for Game 1 — but Beagle’s status remains in the dark. He at least appeared to make some progress by skating for a second straight day, but he hasn’t joined his teammates in practice and is still considered day-to-day with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury that kept him out of the lineup for the final week of the regular season.
Washington is also missing promising young center Travis Boyd, who has been out five days with an illness and whose status for the playoffs remains a mystery. So Trotz might have to turn to rookie Chandler Stephenson to operate at fourth-line center, even though the 23-year-old has no playoff experience and was positioned at left wing for much of the season. Stephenson anchored the fourth line alongside wings Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson on Tuesday.
Beagle’s possible absence could impact Washington on multiple levels. He’s the Capitals’ only right-handed center. He ranked fourth in the NHL in faceoff percentage (58.5) during the regular season while taking the most draws in the defensive zone; Trotz has often used Beagle to take a key faceoff with a line other than his own because he’s so reliable in the dot. He has also been Washington’s top penalty-killing forward, averaging 2:31 shorthanded time on ice per game.
But Trotz also believes in Stephenson’s potential and versatility, the latter of which was a valuable asset for a lineup that was fluid for long stretches this season.
“I’ve always had good trust in Chandler because of the fact that I trust his skill set. I trust his experience that he has and the coaching in Hershey. And I trust that he knows the game quite well,” Trotz said of Stephenson, who finished with six goals and 12 assists in 67 games this season.
“There were more issues of just consistency for a young man. I think he’s worked through that, and he knows that every day, especially in the National Hockey League, you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal.”
While Stephenson flashed some of that offensive skill set at left wing this season, his primary role with the team’s minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., was at center. He played center in the regular season finale, which gave him valuable reps, and he has spent the past few practices familiarizing himself with the intricacies of the position before he makes his playoff debut.
“It was a little adjustment at first. I was used to playing wing. You just have a little bit more responsibility now,” Stephenson said. “Last game, I got some progress in getting my reps. It has made me feel more at home . . . and bringing my roots back.”
Here’s how Washington’s lineup looked in Tuesday’s practice:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-Devante Smith-Pelly
Brett Connolly-Chandler Stephenson-Alex Chiasson
Extras: Shane Gersich, Brian Pinho, Travis Boyd (ill), Jay Beagle (upper-body injury)
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Jakub Jerabek
Scratch: Christian Djoos
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