Adam Oates walked into the locker room after the Washington Capitals’ final regular-season game Saturday night and told captain Alex Ovechkin he wanted to meet with players after they spoke to reporters. The coach wanted to make sure his guys were prepared to face the New York Rangers in the playoffs beginning Tuesday.
The only problem is the Caps and Rangers‘ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series starts Thursday, not Tuesday, throwing the variable of extra rest into the equation.
“Kind of odd,” forward Matt Hendricks said of the late start. “It’s a lot of days to sit around and practice. But we’ve got guys with bumps and bruises, so it’s a good time to heal and it’s a good time to get the rest back that we need, get some good meals in us and really focus in on what’s in store for us now.”
That refrain of healing “bumps and bruises” was echoed within the locker room Monday. The old cliche goes that no one is 100 percent this time of year.
“For me, personally, I can’t speak for the whole team, but we needed some days off here or there so we can rest our body before we get into it,” said defenseman Mike Green, who missed 93 of Washington’s past 212 regular-season games because of injury.
It’s not like the Caps or Rangers had any control over the scheduling, but neither team had a four-day break during the regular season. It’s beneficial for right wing Joel Ward, who could return after missing nine games with a bruised left knee, and the rest of the team is trying to put a happy face on during the extra time off.
“You enjoy it,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “You get some rest. You get to study your opponents a little bit more. And you get to flow into the playoffs rather than just be thrown into them.”
Seeing the Rangers in the playoffs for the third straight year and fourth time in the past five should mean not too much studying is necessary. Only six Caps players haven’t been a part of a series against New York.
John Tortorella still coaches a defensive system predicated on shot-blocking, but offseason acquisition Rick Nash wasn’t with the Rangers last year and neither were deadline pickups Derick Brassard and John Moore.
“We’re familiar with the coaching style, we’re familiar with the playing style,” Brouwer said. “The personnel has changed quite a bit, so we have to consider that, absolutely, and we have to go in and play them like a team that we haven’t seen before.”
It could be a challenge mentally for the Caps and Rangers to gear back up after so much time between games. Defenseman Karl Alzner said it’s “a little strange” but OK because this time of year off-days shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“The good thing about it is that it’s the first round,” Hendricks said. “And you’re going to have that jittery feeling, you’re going to have that emotion that the playoffs haven’t started. It’s not like you’re sitting between rounds waiting. This is going to be the beginning of the playoffs. So you’re going to get that extra juice right away just because of that, and I think that’ll help us for sure.”
Oates and his staff spent all day Sunday preparing for the Rangers and Game 1 for Tuesday night. Arena conflicts at Madison Square Garden and Verizon Center, plus national television factors, likely played a role, and now there’s plenty of time before things get going.
“We want to make sure that we’re staying focused mentally and we’re not going to lose a step after the way we played over the last two, three weeks,” Green said. “We want to keep that momentum going this first game of the playoffs. That’s our goal right now, and we’ll stick to it.”