SUNRISE, Fla. | It certainly looks as if the Washington Capitals will be without Alex Ovechkin for at least two more games, so they’re going to have more chances to show they can play well without him.
A shot to prove Wednesday’s third-period meltdown in New Jersey was an aberration is probably a good thing.
“Our game plan going in was ‘be patient, don’t give up much and capitalize on our chances,’ ” forward Brendan Morrison said. “In the end, it was the same old story here the past couple of weeks - we shot ourselves in the foot by taking dumb penalties. If you take three penalties in the final 10 minutes of a 1-1 game, you’re not going to win those games.”
Ovechkin returned to practice Thursday - a short session that featured a heavy dose of intense skating. After the workout, Ovechkin said he felt better but the “upper-body strain” near his left shoulder needs more time to heal and he “probably will miss [Friday’s] game and the next one.”
His coach was just happy to have him back on the ice.
“Obviously, he’s a little tender, but he skated hard and he looked anxious to get out there,” Bruce Boudreau said. “Anytime a guy can practice with your team, it is a positive step closer to getting in the lineup. If I was looking at me [as a player on the team], I’d say, ‘Wow, look how bad he wants to get back in the lineup. We’ve got to work a little harder.’ ”
Ovechkin skated with the team but spent most of the time without a stick. When he moved at a brisk pace, he kept his left arm tight against his chest instead of letting it move freely, almost as if it were in a sling.
Even when the two-time league MVP was watching practice, he had trouble sitting still. If he wasn’t fidgeting or trying to start conversations with players on the other side of the rink, Ovechkin was doing exercises that appeared to be stretching or testing the area between his chest and left shoulder.
“I miss [playing],” he said. “It is not my thing - sitting in the press box and watching games with [the media]. It is not fun. [Practicing without a stick] was a boring time - especially when [assistant coaches Bob Woods and Dean Evason] take me and [Eric] Fehr after practice to skate. Jesus, I don’t like that. I have no problem playing 30 minutes, but I don’t like that.”
For the rest of the team, Wednesday was a sobering reminder of how its margin of error is a bit smaller without No. 8. Morrison said the team did well until the final 10 minutes and blamed the apparent lack of offensive pizazz on New Jersey’s style of play more than Ovechkin’s absence.
Boudreau said the team put together a solid road effort for 50 minutes but then everything fell apart. He was still simmering about three penalties (two by Alexander Semin, one by Morrison) in the offensive end, but he also felt other players could shoulder some of the blame.
According to Boudreau, Evason mapped out what the Devils would try to accomplish on the power play after Semin’s first penalty of the third period and how to combat it.
“They did exactly that, and we didn’t do what we’re supposed to do to defend,” Boudreau said. “We’ve got to be better. It is the same penalty killers that’s been here going on the last 2 1/2 years. On the same token, there’s a lot to go around, because the goalie [Semyon Varlamov] should have had that one. I don’t care if it’s a short-side goal. Those are the ones you have to stop.”
When the Caps return to action Friday, there will be plenty of focus on just how they are going to do a better job replacing Ovechkin. Two games in two nights against lowly Florida could be the solution, but this team might just need to embrace a different identity without their all-world talent.
“We have the best player on planet Earth on our team,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “He is the identity of the team, the identity of the league and the identity of hockey in general. I can’t stress that enough - he is larger than life. When you take him out, you can’t expect one guy - or even five guys - to fill that personality void, because he’s one of a kind.
“What we can do is collectively play tighter and better as a team. Yeah, we might not jump over the glass when we score a goal or whatever Alex does, but we can each be effective in our own way.”