After behind behind the bench for 50 games Adam Oates knows his team by now. And he knows from 19 years as a player in the NHL when practicing isn’t necessary.
Sunday, with the Washington Capitals up two games to none on the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the coach gave his players the opportunity to take part in an optional practice. Only seven guys did, including only center Jay Beagle and defenseman Jack Hillen among those who played in Game 2 Saturday.
“We didn’t even meet this morning,” Oates said. “I just brought them all in just to come to the arena and make sure we just get hockey on your mind. … Obviously because we’re flying, hockey’s in the back of your mind and then tomorrow we just do another game day routine. The thought really from the staff is that even though it’s an afternoon game it’s a stressful environment, you win in overtime you’re excited but still it’s very stressful. So let the guys just breathe a little bit.”
Players appreciated Oates giving them a choice.
“It’s always nice when your body can rest and you get ready for [Monday],” left wing Martin Erat said. “I think in playoffs it doesn’t matter if you practice or not. You have to get ready for a game, whatever the best way you can do it and just get ready for [Game 3].”
Backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth, healthy scratch defensemen Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz and healthy scratch forwards Wojtek Wolski and Aaron Volpatti skated Sunday morning with Beagle and Hillen. Oates didn’t even feel the need to run the super optional practice.
“You want to give guys every opportunity to breathe,” Oates said. “From us, from the game, from stress, fatigue, all the variables that come into play.”
The Caps are 4-5 all-time when leading a playoff series 2-0. The most recent case came two years ago when they beat the Rangers in five games.
Given the abundant success over the past month-and-a-half, there’s a fine line between confidence and complacency. It’s the coaching staff’s job to manage that balance.
“You hope that the messages you’ve been saying all year long guys understand that,” Oates said. “That’s part of what we talked about today, just so you remember that it’s hockey. Don’t get too excited, it was a game. Exciting we won, did a lot of good things but you still gotta do some stuff better. They get to breathe for a day and [Monday] we’re right back at it.”
Players bought into Oates’ message and his philosophy about taking a day to collect their thoughts. Beagle skated because he wasn’t going to get hockey off his mind.
“It’s always in the front of my mind,” Oates said. “It’s the playoffs right now; I’m thinking about it all the time.”
In thinking, Erat and other veteran players know holding serve at home is just the beginning.
“It’s a long series,” he said. “Every series is different. We played well for two games, but now we go on the road and we have to prove we can win on the road, also.”
The Caps went 8-1-1 in their final 10 road games. But none of those game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
“Our job is to block all of that out,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We have a job to do to win the game and the atmosphere, the fans, the other team, that doesn’t matter. We have our goal in mind and we’re going to prepare for that.”