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Prospect Aliaksei Protas continues to shine in Capitals’ preseason loss

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Gustav Nyquist, left, controls the puck in front of Washington Capitals defenseman Gabriel Carlsson during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Washington’s 2-1 preseason loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday — the Capitals’ third road game in four nights — again saw the visitors deploy a mix of veterans and prospects in a game that was fiery from the start.

The contest at Nationwide Arena was probably the last chance for many of the prospects to impress the coaching staff before the Capitals fine-tune their lines in their final two preseason games next week.

Prospect Aliaksei Protas scored the lone Washington goal, opening the scoring with 12:59 left in the first period. His rebound tally came on a delayed penalty. Columbus winger Carson Meyer tied the game at 1 with his goal in front at 12:03 of the opening frame before Yegor Chinakhov scored the game-winner at 6:46 of the third.

The Capitals’ next preseason game is Wednesday at home against the Detroit Red Wings.

Here’s what to know about the Capitals’ loss:

Protas shines

In a matter of weeks, Protas has evolved from a young prospect to a potential full-time NHL player. Not only has Protas played in all four preseason games, but he has looked increasingly comfortable throughout training camp. Protas, who has flourished at both wing and center, was at center against the Blue Jackets and scored his first preseason goal. He skated between Anthony Mantha and Garnet Hathaway.

Protas got off to a strong start in Columbus, controlling the puck and making smart decisions in the offensive zone. He also created a shorthanded chance for himself on the penalty kill with less than a minute left in the first period. Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette has praised Protas’s play throughout camp.

“He’s been really strong,” Laviolette said after Friday’s win at Detroit. “You notice his skating. You notice his physicality. You notice his work ethic. Now he’s making things happen out there.”

McMichael’s stock falling?

Connor McMichael’s place in the lineup continues to be a question mark. He did enough last season to play the majority of the season while injuries limited Washington’s veterans, but he never truly established himself. He spent the offseason adding muscle and improving his play in the corners.

This preseason, however, he has played in just two games and has yet to make his presence felt. While he showed some speed early against Columbus, he was 1 for 4 on faceoffs through two periods and struggled to stand out in a lineup of prospects and veterans. It is unclear how many more — if any — preseason games McMichael plays before the team decides on its opening lineup.

“When you have competition inside of your training camp that is great, young guys pushing for ice time saying they want to be part of the big club, that’s a good thing and there’s been a lot of good performances,” Laviolette said.

Hathaway’s role

Hathaway is entering his eighth NHL season and will again play an integral role on the Capitals’ fourth line. While he increased his offensive numbers last year — a career-best 14 goals and 12 assists — he will be relied upon defensively alongside center Nic Dowd. The third forward on that line has yet to be set. Carl Hagelin formerly occupied that spot, but the Swedish winger is out indefinitely with multiple injuries. Conor Sheary and Marcus Johansson are strong candidates.

While his linemates still need to be worked out, Hathaway has maintained his physical edge while creating opportunities for his teammates. That should help a Capitals group that will be without Tom Wilson (knee) until at least December.

“I feel good right now. A lot of my game is figuring out the mental part of it, too, structure-wise,” Hathaway said. “I do better with more structure, so moving out of captain’s practices into more structure play and into a lot more controlled play.”

Surgery for Stevenson

Goalie Clay Stevenson will be out four to six weeks after undergoing hand surgery, the team announced. The 23-year-old goalie had a procedure to “address an injury in his right hand.” Stevenson survived the first round of training camp cuts, which the team announced Friday. He signed a two-year entry level contract in March.

With Stevenson out of the picture, the Capitals only have three healthy goalies in camp — Darcy Kuemper, Charlie Lindgren and Zach Fucale — after sending Hunter Shepard and Garin Bjorklund to the AHL’s Hershey Bears.

Lindgren played the full 60 minutes in Columbus and stopped 18 shots.

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