“It feels like we’ve been playing the season for a long time, but I know we’re still pretty early in the year,” T.J. Oshie said.
The practice marked the first time the Capitals had a full roster available to them since Jan. 19, when the Capitals played the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. Four players — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov — were added to the NHL’s covid-19 protocol list on Jan. 20 after Samsonov tested positive for the coronavirus.
Then the Capitals began dealing with injury after injury.
Tom Wilson missed two games after a lower-body injury Jan. 22 against the Buffalo Sabres. Lars Eller missed four games after he was crunched along the boards Jan. 26 against the New York Islanders. Justin Schultz has missed four games since he took a puck to the face Jan. 28 against the Islanders. Conor Sheary missed one game with a knee injury suffered Feb. 1 against Boston. Even Oshie missed a game with an upper-body injury.
“It’s been a weird year,” Wilson said. “Obviously ups and downs, guys in and out of the lineup. That will probably be a theme for the whole year, but it is good timing for us to reset, focus on our game, get some key guys back and get other guys back who are nursing some things.”
Taxi squad players and emergency roster exemptions were needed, as well as call ups from the Hershey Bears, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate. At one point, the Capitals had to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen because they did not have enough salary cap space to call up another forward.
But the team seems to have everyone back. Ovechkin and Orlov were cleared to return Jan. 30. Kuznetsov and Samsonov were cleared Monday. Jakub Vrana, who entered the covid-19 protocols Saturday, was removed from the list Tuesday.
Now the coronavirus issues leaguewide are the biggest concern.
“In many ways, I don’t want to say I expected it, but I think from the league’s perspective or players’, I think we knew it wasn’t going to go perfectly,” defenseman John Carlson said.
Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said he expects to have every player available against Pittsburgh on Sunday. Laviolette said he is not sure whether they would have had their full roster available for Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers, but they were “awfully close.”
The game was postponed because of a coronavirus issue in Philadelphia. The Flyers’ facilities are shut down through Sunday.
“We are in the thick of things right now,” Wilson said. “There is going to be adversity. I’m kind of just like wake up, see what our team services guy … has sent us for that day and then just go for it. Sometimes even on a day-to-day basis, like Philly, you wake up thinking you got a game and there is not. There is no reason to really be bent out of shape or get worried or frustrated with anything. Just do our job and be ready when we have to drop the puck.”
With the players getting back to full strength, the Capitals also know they have plenty to work on. After going 3-0-1 without Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Orlov or Samsonov, the Capitals are still looking for their first February win.
The Capitals have allowed at least three goals in 10 of 12 games and have repeatedly talked about getting better in their defensive zone. They tend to get caught flat-footed, such as in last week’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers when New York defenseman Anthony Bitetto skated from behind the net, curled to the point basically unbothered and beat Vitek Vanecek for just his third goal in 185 career games.
Another issue has been an inability to hold leads. Center Nicklas Backstrom said the Capitals have grown passive when playing with a lead when aggressiveness is necessary.
“Teams are going to take you apart if you’re passive and just try to protect the lead at all times,” Backstrom said. “That’s an area we talked about we got to be better at. Even if we’re up a couple goals in the third, the easiest way to defend is probably attacking and keep the puck and possession.”
With a shortened training camp, this mini-pause gives players a chance to better understand Laviolette’s system while also addressing the issues that have cropped up in the season’s first 12 games.
“I think [this break] is certainly good for us right now … but at the same time, who knows how this year is going to go?” Carlson said. “Like this month for us was probably going to be our busiest month with the most games and travel … so if you just attach this to the end of the year, so to speak, then it’s not the best thing in the world to have going into the playoffs either.”
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