BALTIMORE — Nicklas Backstrom has a luxury afforded few of his teammates this preseason in that he’s suiting up for exhibition games alongside his regular linemates Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.
On Tuesday night, as the Capitals fell 3-2 in a shootout to the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins at Baltimore Arena, Backstrom’s focus was to work on reestablishing chemistry, finding their timing and improving as a unit. The group played together in the preseason opener three days earlier against the Winnipeg Jets, but there’s clearly plenty of work to do over the next two weeks before the regular season opener.
“You could see we were a little rusty,” Backstrom said. “We want to play as good as we can right away because the longer you wait, the tougher it gets.”
Whether the first line, or any individual, was able to accomplish all that much at the second Baltimore Hockey Classic was tough to tell. The 51-year-old arena avoided repeating the soupy mess of two years ago, but the ice was still imperfect.
The surface was rough, choppy and had significant ruts throughout by the mid-point of each period that prevented pucks from gliding cleanly and prompted caution on the part of the players. There were also issues with the glass. Part of a stanchion popped off in the first period, halting play, and in the second Ovechkin broke a pane of glass simply by coming into contact with it.
“First five minutes [the ice] is well, but after it’s kind of, you can’t hold the puck, you can’t shoot it and you’re afraid to go to the boards because it’s too dangerous out there,” said Ovechkin, who said the incident with the glass was kind of scary. “I don’t know. I just try to get the hit and I miss it, I hit the glass and it just crashes. I don’t know if I’m too strong or glass not that strong.”
The Capitals wrapped up the third of eight exhibition games — two of which featured conditions different from an NHL game — and the desire to focus on details is increasing. Nearly every player remaining on the training camp roster has appeared in one game, worked through the annual re-introduction to game speed and wants to move on to the next phase.
But while the Capitals are a veteran-laden squad with few roster spots to fill, training camp is still when the organization takes stock of its prospects and minor league talent, and not everyone is working with their usual linemates or defensive partners. So gauging progress can be tricky, especially for the established players.
Coach Adam Oates understands that the preseason can be challenging for veterans.
“Your job’s secure so you don’t have the intensity as say someone on the other team whose job is not secure,” Oates said. “But it’s really difficult because you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to be 100 percent. It’s really hard mentally, and once you get through that first game you realize, ‘You know what, I better just gear up a notch each day and just try and find a little something extra each day.’”
Veterans want to find familiarity with the teammates they’ll spend the seven-month regular season skating with, but they understand that’s not as important as this time can be for a young player’s career.
Take Troy Brouwer. He’s anxious to start building chemistry with Mikhail Grabovski, but because the center’s arrival was delayed by visa issues, Brouwer skated with prospects Chandler Stephenson and Nathan Walker for a second preseason game Tuesday night.
“It can be tough because you don’t get to practice, you don’t get too much time to prepare with your linemates,” Brouwer said. “Now that Grabovski’s back, I’m sure I’ll have him as my center to get some familiarity going into the season, but anything I can do to try and help these kids make an impression, I’m happy.”
Capitals notes: Brooks Laich, who hasn’t been able to take part in a full practice because of a left hip flexor injury, skated solo Tuesday morning in Arlington. There is no timetable for when he will practice with the team. . . . In his first day after resolving his visa issues, Grabovski skated in Arlington and again during warmups in Baltimore. He did not play against the Bruins.