COLUMBUS, Ohio — “The legs are definitely tired,” Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. A few feet away, defenseman Dmitry Orlov was stretching on the visitors’ dressing-room floor. The treatment room around the corner was already packed.
Columbus Blue Jackets Coach John Tortorella called the Stanley Cup playoffs “a game of attrition,” and this is a series of it. Have some electrolytes.
“That’s why you take care of your body. That’s why you’re an athlete,” Wilson continued. “That’s what the skate test is for in September, I guess. The guys will be recovering from here on in, getting some ice tubs or whatever.”
The infamous skate test of training camp ensures players are conditioned after the summer, but it doesn’t quite prepare them for this. The first three games of the first-round series between the Capitals and Blue Jackets have gone to overtime, with Tuesday night’s 3-2 Washington win needing five periods and 89 minutes to decide it. Both teams have now played an extra 47:24 over the course of the series. The winning team may be the one left standing at the end.
“I think what overtime makes you do is concentrate when you’re tired,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “I mean, you have to stay in that moment. You can’t cut that corner, you can’t do that fly-by when you’re really tired, you can’t cheat, because those are the times that the puck ends up in the back of the net. It just happens, and I think when you’re tired or you’re battling through something, you have to have a really strong focus and mental toughness.”
The Capitals are veterans of playoff overtime by now. They have played past regulation in 34 percent of their postseason games since 2008, the highest percentage of any team in that span, and eight of Washington’s past nine first-round games have needed overtime. As the team returned to the locker room before the second overtime Tuesday night, Wilson said the mood had gotten lighter, and a few jokes were even exchanged. But with Washington playing in sold-out Nationwide Arena, those 15-minute breaks are just as important for refueling as they are for strategically regrouping.
“It’s more just making sure your body is ready, conserving energy at the right times, getting the right stuff in you between periods because you know it’s a lot of people in the building,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “A lot of energy makes for getting hotter and hotter throughout the game. That’s why we have a really good staff here, to make sure we’re getting the right stuff in to have that energy.”
As postgame soreness made Wilson nostalgic for Washington’s skate test, Blue Jackets players thought back to their training camp. Tortorella requires players to run two miles in less than 12 minutes. The on-ice testing can be grueling, making defenseman Seth Jones’s 35:04 of ice time Tuesday night seem like no big deal. Orlov skated 36 minutes for Washington, while Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen led all players with more than 37 minutes.
“We were saying in between the first and second overtime that we all felt pretty good, felt in shape,” said Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski, who skated 30:28.
Both Tortorella and Trotz opted to give their players a full day off Wednesday. The Capitals didn’t schedule any off-ice workouts between games, leaving it up to the players to go with what works best for them. “We let the guys have a little bit of space,” Trotz said.
Hot tubs and cold tubs are available. Older players might want to get some exercise in to keep the body moving. That may not be necessary for younger players, who typically recover more quickly. Columbus’s youthful team could have the edge there, but Tortorella said even with players spending Wednesday at home, he plans to make skating Thursday morning optional, too.
“During playoffs, to me, it’s not a physical fatigue; it’s a mental fatigue — and that’s what breaks you down physically,” Tortorella said. “But if we’re fatigued three games in, holy crap, we’re just starting. It’s a long game last night, and we’ve had a couple overtime games, but that’s all part of this.”
Even with the Capitals’ dressing room filled with aching bodies Tuesday night, they were feeling pretty good about themselves.
“A win like this after playing that long? I’m sure they feel a lot more tired in that room than we’re feeling right now,” said center Lars Eller, who had the winning goal. “It gives you a lot of energy, but it’s going to be a battle again in Game 4.”