On the surface, Tuesday night’s nationally televised game between the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers is a matchup of two Eastern Conference heavyweights, with both teams atop their respective division standings.
But dig deeper, and the matchup will likely reveal very little about how the Capitals measure up next to the conference’s second-best team. It will be a game featuring backup goaltenders, and Washington’s lineup will be severely depleted.
The Capitals will be playing without captain Alex Ovechkin, who was suspended by the NHL for the game because he skipped the All-Star Game with a lower-body injury. Washington’s second-best player, goaltender Braden Holtby, will also be sitting this one out, getting rest after a hectic all-star weekend in Nashville. Third-line center Marcus Johansson is unlikely to play because of an upper-body injury he suffered before the all-star break.
“Everybody has got to step up and get it done,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “You can’t control everything, but you can control how you play and you can control what you do as a team and how detailed you are and go from there.”
Washington has already played one game without Ovechkin this season, and the result was a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in October. It’s hard to glean a lot from that, because first-line center Nicklas Backstrom was also out at the time with an injury and it was just the second game of the season, but that game nevertheless underscored the importance of having Ovechkin in the lineup.
“When you’re missing the best player on your team, it’s hard to do anything to fill that void,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You have guys that can play his roles. Can they do them as good as him? Maybe on some days, but he’s pretty special, so I think we just need more work and a little bit extra from every guy.”
Ovechkin’s role in the Capitals’ success is why Washington decided to rest him during all-star weekend, willing to swallow the one-game suspension in the interest of maximizing his health for the rest of the season. Ovechkin practiced Monday, and Trotz said Ovechkin isn’t expected to miss any games beyond Tuesday with his unspecified lower-body injury.
Trotz didn’t say who would fill Ovechkin’s spot on the top line against the Panthers. Trotz could opt to bump second-line left wing Andre Burakovsky up to the first line, but that would then disturb a second line that has displayed chemistry recently. The Capitals will also have to replace Ovechkin and Johansson on the power play.
“Just going to move guys around, up and down,” Trotz said. “There’s two things: I can keep the lines fairly current, if you will, and I can move a guy like [Stanislav Galiev] up, or I can move some other guys up. Just depends on how much I want to move around.”
The Capitals’ spot atop the Metropolitan Division isn’t especially surprising, because Washington was a trendy Stanley Cup pick before the season. But the Panthers have had unexpected success, a “great up-and-coming” team, Trotz said, and Washington has struggled in its games against Florida.
The Panthers had won just five of their first 10 games when they hosted the Capitals the first time on Halloween, not yet on anyone’s radar as a top team in the league. The Capitals escaped with a 2-1 overtime win. Even then, the Capitals sensed they were facing a talented team with young stars such as defenseman Aaron Ekblad and center Aleksander Barkov and older ones such as Jaromir Jagr.
“They looked good right away,” Alzner said. “Just from the beginning of the season when you’re looking at rosters, they looked like one of the teams that could challenge if some of the older guys were playing as good as they have been. It’s pretty fun to watch a team like that because obviously, when Florida does good, it’s good for the league. I think everybody in the league is kind of happy for them.”
The Panthers beat the Capitals convincingly, 4-1, on Dec. 10, and a 12-game winning streak that vaulted them into first place in the Atlantic Division soon followed, leaving no doubt that Florida is a contender. The Capitals will be far from full strength in the latest matchup and will again have to shake off rust in just their second game since Jan. 19.
Fortunately for Washington, a 11-point lead in the conference has afforded it the flexibility to play a game without some top players and know that a loss wouldn’t devastate the team long term. A win would be just another impressive feat in a season full of them.