Typically the last preseason game is more of a dress rehearsal for the regular season because most of the roster spots have been decided, but for Washington, Sunday’s 4-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes served as another chance for experimentation for Capitals Coach Todd Reirden and his staff.
Washington has until Tuesday to pare its roster to 23 players. The Capitals will have some temporary salary cap relief while center Evgeny Kuznetsov is suspended because his $7.8 million cap hit will be off the books until he returns Oct. 8 against the Dallas Stars, but with his salary included, the team is more than $1.3 million over the cap of $81.5 million, according to CapFriendly.com.
“There’s some different ways to utilize some of that extra cap space [before Kuznetsov is reinstated] and figure out a way that gives our team the best chance at success,” Reirden said.
The Capitals had 29 players on their roster Sunday, including Shane Gersich, who was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League on Sunday morning a day after he was sent down with five other players. Gersich provided some needed depth after centers Lars Eller and Nic Dowd were both late scratches for Sunday’s game.
Reirden said Eller, who dealt with an upper-body injury last week but made his preseason debut in Chicago on Wednesday, was out Sunday because of a personal situation that was not injury-related. Reirden said Dowd was battling a minor upper-body ailment and described his absence as precautionary.
Other players who did not make the trip to Carolina included captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t practice Saturday because of what the team is calling “lower-body maintenance.” Ovechkin skated Sunday at the team’s practice facility and is expected to be ready for the regular season opener. Forward Liam O’Brien, who suffered an upper-body injury in a fight Friday night in St. Louis, also was not in the lineup against Carolina.
With Eller out and Kuznetsov suspended for the first three games of the season, the Capitals took a close look at the center position against Carolina. Kuznetsov moved to the left wing on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson, which allowed for Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Michael Sgarbossa to get extended opportunities in the middle. In a chippy game, Sgarbossa took an illegal check to the head by Brock McGinn in the second period but stayed in the game.
Stephenson, whose spot in the lineup is far from secure after the Capitals acquired three bottom-six forwards in the offseason, had one of his best games of the preseason Sunday, dishing out two primary assists. Stephenson looked destined to be pushed out of the lineup when training camp started, but he is making a strong case to stay. Reirden acknowledged Stephenson had a strong game Sunday, and T.J. Oshie, who scored two goals, called Stephenson the “best player on the ice.”
“That is what we were looking for," Reirden said, "three centermen that were competing, and that is how it played out for us tonight. And like I said, the players are going to make the decision, and some guys played better than others tonight.”
On the blue line, the biggest question is still about Michal Kempny, who is considered doubtful to play Wednesday against St. Louis. With Kempny not cleared for contact after tearing his left hamstring in April, the defensive pairings are being shuffled. There has been no talk of putting Kempny on long-term injured reserve, which would require him to miss at least the first 10 games, and he hasn’t been ruled out for Washington’s second or third games, at the New York Islanders on Friday and home against the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Reirden listed Martin Fehervary, Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler as options to skate on John Carlson’s left side to start the season. On Sunday, the Capitals matched Siegenthaler with Carlson on the top pairing, Dmitry Orlov and Nick Jensen on the second pairing and Fehervary with Radko Gudas on the third. Fehervary, whom the Capitals drafted in the second round last year and who has yet to make his NHL debut, practiced next to Carlson on Saturday. He also earned some minutes with Carlson in the third period Sunday, and Reirden said he thought Fehervary played well.
The Capitals carried four goalies on their two-game preseason road trip to Chicago and St. Louis this past week but whittled the group down to three after sending Vitek Vanecek to Hershey on Saturday. Reirden said Saturday the backup job behind starter Braden Holtby is still undecided between incumbent Pheonix Copley and Ilya Samsonov, the team’s anointed goalie of the future who has yet to play his first NHL game. With six preseason games this season instead of a traditional seven, Copley played two games’ worth of minutes in net, while Samsonov played a game and a half.
Holtby played the entire game Sunday against Carolina, with Samsonov as the backup. Samsonov, who carries a $925,000 cap hit, does not need to go through waivers if he is not kept on the roster, whereas Copley, who has a $1.1 million cap hit, does.
As the Capitals prepare to make their final roster decisions, Reirden said he is happy with how the exhibition season went, specifically Sunday’s finale.
“They came at us hard, and I thought our composure was good there at the end when they were going in there and making a push," Reirden said. "It was a really good game to evaluate.”