BOSTON | Barely 20 minutes into the Washington Capitals’ optional practice Friday, defensemen Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Steve Oleksy came off. Accustomed to something of a rink rat mentality of staying on for extra work, leaving wasn’t their choice.
Thursday night at the Carolina Hurricanes, Oleksy played a game- and career-high 27 minutes, 55 seconds. Carlson wasn’t far behind at 27:36, and Alzner played 22:16.
Because coach Adam Oates couldn’t keep them off the ice after Tomas Kundratek’s injury, he wanted them to rest Friday.
“They wanted us to take a little break there,” Oleksy said. “Not sure how many minutes we’ll be playing in the next couple games here. You’ve got to prepare for the next game and they wanted us to take a little break today.”
With back-to-back games at the Boston Bruins on Saturday and home against the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night, the Caps will be leaning heavily on those three defensemen, along with Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti. Kundratek had an MRI in Washington on Friday after suffering an apparent right leg or knee injury early against the Hurricanes.
“It really puts a stress load on the other guys having to play so many minutes,” Oates said. “With the schedule now, it makes it very difficult for everybody.”
The Caps’ blue line was already without Mike Green (groin) and John Erskine (apparent left hand/wrist/arm). Kundratek left after Carolina forward Jeff Skinner fell on him after being checked by Alzner.
“I didn’t even see it. I didn’t even know he got hurt until the whistle went,” Alzner said. “I was just finishing the check. I think Kundy was coming in to pick up the puck. From what he said he just kind of fell on him awkward.”
Kundratek has been a vital part of the Caps’ blue line since being recalled after Jack Hillen’s injury on opening night. Losing him likely means Cameron Schilling’s return to the lineup for his second NHL game Saturday at TD Garden.
“We’ve seen what Schilling can do, and we know that if he has to step in, it shouldn’t be a problem,” Alzner said.
But the onus really is on Carlson and Oleksy, just as it was Thursday night. Kundratek took just four shifts for 3:14, so there were plenty of minutes to eat up the rest of the way.
“Tons of minutes, yeah. A lot of minutes,” Oates said. “A lot of stressful minutes and hard. Obviously Carly’s been here for a lot longer, so we count on him so much and Stevie did a great job.”
Oates appeared almost in amazement at how well Oleksy and Carlson handled the heavy workload against the Hurricanes.
“I can’t say how proud you are of the guys,” the Caps’ coach said. “Stevie Oleksy had played almost 30 minutes, man, that’s incredible. Really proud of them all, all of them. They all did a yeoman’s job, in a tough barn, last 10 minutes, PK, everything.”
Oleksy, playing just his sixth NHL game after 55 with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and several years in the minors, didn’t consider it a big deal.
“You prepare for that you never know what’s going to happen in the course of 60 minutes,” he said. “I train, I’m ready to play as much as I possibly can. It helps to get into the game you feel a lot more part of it.”
After flying to Boston and getting some skating in, Oleksy still looked to have plenty of energy to burn. The 27-year-old is loving every minute of this.
“I feel real good,” he said. “As a hockey player it doesn’t matter if you play 30 minutes or five minutes, you’ve got to take care of your body and do what it takes to get ready for the next game.”
The next game comes quick, Saturday afternoon against a physical Bruins team. That’s why Oates chased Oleksy, Alzner and Carlson off the ice at Boston University’s Agganis Arena on Friday.
“They all want to get a little skating in,” Oates said. “And obviously schedule-wise playing an early game, they want to get a little bit of sweat going.”
With the workload expected to ratchet back up against Boston and Buffalo, it won’t take long for the defensemen to break a sweat this weekend.