QUEBEC CITY — Washington Capitals hockey finally seemed to have returned upon the sight of the puck on Alex Ovechkin’s stick in the left faceoff circle. Defenseman Christian Djoos teed up the signature power-play one-timer, and in his first shot since he played in the Stanley Cup finals, Ovechkin sent the rubber disk past Montreal goaltender Charlie Lindgren.
Ovechkin reacted with nonchalance — this is the preseason, after all — and despite the goal and assist he recorded Thursday night, he knows he and the Capitals have a long way to go before the games start counting Oct. 3. In the first game action Washington’s top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson and Ovechkin have seen in more than three months, the trio were predictably rusty in the 5-2 loss to the Canadiens at Videotron Centre.
“I wouldn’t say we picked up right where we left off,” Wilson said. “You’re firing at a little bit of a different rate in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals versus your first game of exhibition. Mentally and physically, you need those reps. You need to get back to the pace that you need to be at to play in this league. You know, we were off a little bit, too. We’ve got to get used to each other again.”
Through the first week of training camp, new Coach Todd Reirden has kept his forward lines largely the same as the ones that were so successful in the team’s long playoff run. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Wilson have stayed together, as have center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie.
Though third-line center Lars Eller hasn’t played in a preseason game — he missed the first three days of training camp with a minor lower-body injury — he has practiced with wingers Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, a trio for much of last season.
With all but one skater returning from the lineup Washington dressed during the Stanley Cup finals, this preseason is more about rediscovering something close to the play that won the team a championship in June than trying to test who has chemistry with whom. The Capitals have lost all three of their exhibition games to open the preseason because of sloppy, slow starts.
Washington allowed three goals in the first period Thursday night against Montreal, and all three plays started with turnovers that led to odd-man breaks. It took the Capitals 15:45 to record their first shot of the game, and the Canadiens had four goals when Washington was still stuck on four shots.
“That’s why you have to play preseason games, to feel the puck and feel the rhythm so you’re going to be ready for home opener and for the year,” Ovechkin said.
On the first shift of the game, Ovechkin mishandled a pass from Wilson and lost the puck in his skates. Later in the first period, Kuznetsov maneuvered his way to the front of the net, blowing past a Montreal defenseman with ease, but he wasn’t able to get a shot off on the play. Thursday also was an opportunity for Reirden to play Kuznetsov on the penalty kill, something the center rarely has done over the past four seasons, and he had plenty of practice with the Capitals called for six penalties.
“We’re kind of caught in the middle right now of some younger guys, with the pace of play, not being able to execute at an exhibition NHL [level], and then you have older guys coming in to play their first game that have been off for quite a while,” Reirden said.
“I was probably too excited and overplay sometimes, but it’s normal, you know?” Kuznetsov said. “We expect that to happen. It’s not easy to have a first couple games after you have a summer like that.”