Washington Capitals players were away from each other for just a week, but as their midseason vacation officially ended with Thursday afternoon’s practice, it felt “kind of like your first day again,” forward Tom Wilson said. Most players had previously rejected the notion that they were fatigued from last year’s long run to the Stanley Cup, but the difference the time off made from the bye week was immediately evident.
“We were tired,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Maybe it was too much hockey. And today, I look at the guys and I can see everybody is missing the hockey and everybody flying, everybody laughing, everybody don’t think about what happened a week ago or how many games we lose in a row. I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine in the next few days.”
And while players were more upbeat than the last time they’d all been together, their seven-game losing streak going into the break hasn’t been completely forgotten either. The challenge of snapping it in Friday night’s game against the Calgary Flames will be made more difficult because Ovechkin won’t be in the lineup, serving a one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game. He has missed just 29 games in his 14-year career, and the Capitals are 13-14-2 without him.
The good news for Washington is that the skid hasn’t dropped the team very far in the standings. Through 50 games, the Capitals have an identical record to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the two teams tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division, three points in back of the New York Islanders. Friday’s game will be the first of a six-game homestand before the most grueling trip of the season, six games with three in California.
“I just felt a little bit different energy around our room today — guys happy to be back with each other,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “For as much as we look at it, different things to improve on, I think this break came at a good time for us. We’ll see how that goes tomorrow and putting the proper group together. Obviously without our captain it’s not going to be easy.”
The team will return from its trip West just ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline, and while Washington isn’t likely to upend a roster nearly identical to the one that won a Stanley Cup last year, how active General Manager Brian MacLellan chooses to be could depend on how the Capitals fare during this crucial stretch. He has already said that he’s looking to make a forward-for-forward swap, and while he didn’t explicitly mention winger Andre Burakovsky, the 23-year-old has been the subject of trade speculation for months. While Washington wasn’t initially interested in a return of draft picks or a prospect, the team could take that and then flip it for another player in a separate trade.
Of most concern to the Capitals has been their porous defensive play and goaltending over the past month. Washington allowed 30 goals over the five games before the break. Second-year defenseman Christian Djoos has been out of the lineup since Dec. 11, when he suffered compartment syndrome and then had to have surgery on his left thigh, and he skated with the team in practice Thursday, a good sign that he could return to the lineup within a couple weeks. That could also impact Washington’s plans before the trade deadline; MacLellan has added defensive depth every February for the past four years, but he said before this losing streak that he’s comfortable with his blue line.
MacLellan said he’ll be mindful of upsetting team chemistry with any potential move. The subtle addition of defenseman Michal Kempny last season worked better than the blockbuster for Kevin Shattenkirk two years ago.
“The time frame you have to integrate a guy into your lineup is hard, and it’s a tough thing to make work, you know, with the coaches, with the team, and to find a role for a guy,” MacLellan said. “In hindsight, you look at Shattenkirk, who we thought was a really good player [to] improve our power play, but the fact was the integration didn’t go as great as we thought it would. I had several discussions with the coaching staff on how do we use him, how do we manage around this, and the chemistry worked probably during the year, but I don’t think in the end it fully connected. It’s a hard thing to do to add a guy, a high-impact guy, at the end and be successful at it.”
Before the Capitals shake anything up, they’ll attempt to rediscover their identity during this homestand, and Reirden said he wants to see Washington get away from the bad habit of going chance-for-chance against teams. These final 32 games before the playoffs can be something of a fresh start for a team that needed to recharge.
“You look at last year, we went through a ton of adversity, too,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “It wasn’t any different. It’s the way you come through that ultimately weighs on how much success you’re going to have. In a way, it’s a good thing for us right now because we were going to have to have something like this to push us in the right direction. It’s almost one of those reality checks to move on and stay in the moment instead of in the past or relying on the past. Now we’re focused on our team and where it is right now and getting better and being the best we can.”