While five of their teammates compete at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the rest of the Capitals will spend 10 days resting, recovering and preparing for what should be a fierce fight for a Stanley Cup playoff spot.
NHL players can’t return to the ice until Feb. 19 when most teams will begin a mini-training camp to shake off the rust and make sure they’re ready when games begin again. That won’t happen for Washington until Feb. 27 when it plays at the Florida Panthers.
“It’s a break,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “They get a chance to take some time off, re-energize and then come back and focus on the stretch.”
That won’t be an easy final six weeks. There are only 23 games remaining in the season. Washington (27-23-9, 63 points) is one point out of the final wild card spot held by Detroit (26-20-12, 64 points). But the Caps are technically in 11th place in the conference thanks to a tiebreaker. Columbus has 63 points, but one less game played. Ottawa has 63 points, but more regulation and overtime wins.
Washington is also fifth in the tight Metropolitan Division. Three points separate it from third place Philadelphia and four from the New York Rangers, who are in second. The top three teams in each division are guaranteed playoff berths.
In the meantime, Caps players will scatter around North America and beyond while teammates Alex Ovechkin (Russia), Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson (Sweden), Martin Erat (Czech Republic) and John Carlson (United States) play in Sochi. The medal games are Feb. 22 (bronze) and Feb. 23 (gold).
Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr are headed to Florida. Multiple players are taking separate vacations to the Caribbean, including Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and goalie Braden Holtby. Oates himself is headed back to Toronto to see family and immerse himself in Canada’s obsessive Olympics coverage. He hopes his players have fun with the time off – just not too much.
“Most guys in here will do something to make sure that they’re still in game shape, making sure that they’re keeping their fitness levels up,” Brouwer said. “Just because we know that when we get back we’ve got seven or nine days of tough practicing to make sure that the timing is there, the battling is there, the mentality is there. Because we can’t miss a beat when we come back - otherwise it means no playoffs.”
The rest will especially help Washington’s injured players. Mikhail Grabovski has missed eight games with a sore left ankle. The second-line center will spend the break with his family in Aspen. Colo. He was on the ice for practice Friday at Kettler Iceplex for the first time since the injury and will reassess his status when the team returns on Feb. 19 for a 2 p.m. practice.
Brooks Laich is headed to Lloydminster, Saskatchewan – Holtby’s hometown - to visit his sister and nieces and nephews. That rest should help his lingering groin injury. After playing closer to 20 minutes a night early in the season, Laich has had to scale back his work recently. He sat out a Feb. 2 game against Detroit and played under 13 minutes on the fourth line in games last week against the New York Islanders and Winnipeg. But Laich then increased his total to 14:47 against New Jersey on Saturday in a 3-0 victory and saw action on the second line, too.
“You need the time to heal or need the time, if you’ve been healing, to get back into game shape, do some rehab, whatever it is,” Laich said. “Then you have some practice days and it’s right back into the season.”
Defenseman Mike Green (concussion) was also on the ice on Friday for practice. That’s a good sign, but he didn’t play the final five games before the Olympic break so, he, too, needs to be re-evaluated upon his return. NHL players are not permitted to use team facilities during the break.
Jack Hillen, another injured defenseman, has missed almost the entire season with a broken leg suffered on Oct. 3. He is making steady progress and hopes to return shortly after the break. Given how close he is, Hillen will head home to Minneapolis and skate with his high school team over the break. He said he was “very encouraged” with his progress and would use the high-intensity practices later in the month as a gauge.
“I have to make sure my body stays ready because I’ve done a lot of really good work in the last three weeks to get where I’m at now and I don’t want to lose that,” Hillen said. “I actually think the break is awesome because in a regular season I would never have the opportunity to practice for a week with the team.”
On Sunday, Washington returned three of its roster players to AHL Hershey. Defensemen Julien Brouillette, Patrick Wey and center Casey Wellman will all play for the Bears over the break. Brouillette, at age 27, made his NHL debut on Thursday, registering an assist, and scored a goal in the third period of a scoreless game on Saturday.