- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2017

For the first four months of the NHL season, the Washington Capitals skated by, reaching the 40-win mark faster than any other team in the league and amassing a goal differential head-and-shoulders above their peers.

Dealing with a sudden slew of injuries and a tricky schedule, however, the Capitals have gone 2-2-1 in their first five games following their league-mandated bye week. They failed to pick up where they left off — having entered the six-day break on a 17-2-1 run — and most recently lost Saturday in Nashville less than 24 hours after playing at home the night before.

It was an unusually pedestrian set of performances but, given the circumstances, not terribly concerning.

“It’s always tough when you lose a couple guys from the team,” center Evgeny Kuznetsov said Friday. “You always want everyone to stay healthy and it’s always tough when your friends get hurt.”

The Capitals had been in great health all season but, on Thursday, the team placed forward Andre Burakovsky on injured reserve. Then, defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, and right winger T.J. Oshie missed Friday and Saturday’s games due to injuries (all three are day-to-day and expected back soon).

Down four regulars, the Capitals have had to test their depth. Right wing Riley Barber made his NHL debut Friday night against Edmonton, skating on the third line with fellow rookie Zach Sanford and center Lars Eller.

“I think it’s just important to play these types of games when you’re gonna be without players,” Justin Williams said Friday. “We’ve been pretty lucky this year, healthwise. We’ve got a full lineup most nights.”

Barber looked a bit lost at times and played sparingly Saturday in Nashville, but it was good for the Capitals to get a better look at him before the March 1 trading deadline. Barber said his NHL debut Friday had him skating faster than he ever has and constantly calling to his linemates.

“I’m more just like, hopefully I don’t mess up, I’m telling them ‘What do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?’” Barber said. “But no, Lars was great and Sanford, I spent time with him in [AHL] Hershey, he actually moved into our house there so me and him are pretty close.”

Sanford, meanwhile, has played well; the rookie scored the first goal of his NHL career in the Capitals‘ last game before the bye week, and general manager Brian MacLellan said Thursday that he thinks Sanford is coming along well.

“He’s coming,” MacLellan said. “I thought he played, in my mind, his best game last night. I didn’t think he played as good (against) Anaheim, he got the big goal, which bought him some time. He’s coming. He’s coming. [Jakub] Vrana I think is there too. If we needed a speed guy, we could use him.”

The Capitals are not alone in struggling out of the bye week. As of Sunday morning, teams were 5-14-4 in their first games back.

Not only did the Capitals lose, 3-2 in a shootout against Detroit, in their return from the break, the condensed schedule that follows the time off seemed to hurt them as well. Saturday’s game in Nashville, which began at 4 p.m. Central Standard Time after the Capitals played at 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time in Washington the night before, seemed like a scheduled loss before the puck dropped.

Teams must have at least 22 hours between games according to the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, so the Capitals schedule was pushing it. Only because of the time difference did it meet the criteria.

Coach Barry Trotz didn’t take issue with the rule, which allows teams to play earlier in the day, even after playing the night before, often to make room for primetime games that are nationally televised. He said he’d rather have the league take a closer look at total travel time than extend the time between back-to-back games.

“I mean, when you go to New York, sometimes it’s an hour and a half to get to your destination at certain times of the day,’ Trotz said. “I think the actual travel, if they paid more attention to that, that would help. It is what is. We’ll deal with it. Two hours isn’t going to be the end of the world.”

The world, indeed, has continued to turn on its axis but the Capitals did come out flat on Saturday. The 5-2 loss was their most lopsided since Jan. 24 and Alex Ovechkin didn’t register a shot on goal. The team appeared tired after a fast-paced game the night before.

Next up, the Capitals head to New York to play the Rangers on Tuesday before hosting the Devils two days later. Washington isn’t scheduled for back-to-back days off until March 7-8, which comes before a three-game road trip to California.

There is little room for error in the Metropolitan Division, where the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets all have 38-plus wins. Washington needs to get healthy and back to business to avoid ceding the top spot in the standings, but the post-bye blip hasn’t exposed any fundamental flaws the Capitals can’t recover from.

 

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