What should the Washington Capitals take from a thorough beating of the Florida Panthers?
“We’ve got to throw the tape away,” coach Adam Oates said. “The league’s not that easy.”
Don’t take confidence from a 7-1 victory or get too high off it. Just like a bad loss, the Caps simply want to move on.
The one thing that could carry over to this weekend’s back-to-backs at the New York Islanders and against the Rangers is a lighter workload that Oates was able to give defenseman John Carlson and other big-minute players.
“That was probably the best thing about the game,” Oates said. “In the big picture, hopefully those minutes matter down the road.”
Down the road could be March 31, when the Caps play their 14th game in 25 days. Or it could be this weekend amid back-to-back afternoon games with plenty of travel mixed in.
Carlson, whose duties have been ratcheted up in the absence of No. 1 defenseman Mike Green, played a season-low 16:49 Thursday night. Captain Alex Ovechkin played just 17:32, center Mike Ribeiro 16:29 and center Nicklas Backstrom 16:20.
Because the game was so out of hand, recently signed defenseman Steve Oleksy led the team in ice time with 22:13.
That’s some good experience for a guy playing his second career NHL game. And it’s even better for Carlson to have a rest, given how heavily the Caps are leaning on him in all situations.
“I think that’s going to help a lot in the end, taking probably seven, eight minutes away from Carly, which can do a lot of damage to a guy,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “That’s huge.”
Carlson, who played as much as 30:34 in a game as Green is out of the lineup with a groin injury, isn’t worried about the extra ice time.
“I don’t make those decisions,” the 23-year-old defenseman said. “I just go out there and play when my number is called. And maybe a little rest will help me. I felt good today. So who knows? It’s gonna be a whacky month. So I guess any time you can get a chance we really got to take care of ourselves this month.”
With 16 games crammed into March because of the compressed schedule, Caps players were well-aware of this grind and how to handle it.
This particular stretch of three games in four days is a challenge.
“You’ve just got to take care of the body, get a lot of sleep, eat healthy, be ready to go and play smart,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We don’t need to come out and play run-and-gun hockey. We need to play our system, play smart and it’ll take care of itself.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who will start at least one game over the weekend, insisted he’s not physically fatigued despite playing 11 games in a row. “If we’re getting tired physically, we shouldn’t be here,” he said.
Alzner said he and the rest of his teammates are doing all right when it comes to managing the fatigue.
“Practices aren’t too hard where we’re killing ourselves, so guys are using their time wisely,” he said.
Preparing to play back-to-back games should help the Caps get over the Florida victory quickly. There’s not enough time to dwell when there’s plenty of concern about being physically and mentally ready for the Islanders and Rangers.
“It’s the schedule, man. Everybody get that kind of position when you get tired,” Ovechkin said. “Of course for somebody, like for me it’s normal stuff. Of course I’m getting tired, but I have better recovery because I was playing before [during the lockout in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League] and lots of guys didn’t play. They play golf or was [in] hometown, like go fishing like Hendy, you know? For them it’s kind of hard, but we play almost like 25 games, so we have to be in shape.”
The Caps have 10 guys on the active roster who played during the lockout. But 22 games have made it more of an even playing field for those who didn’t.
Conditioning shouldn’t be a problem, but a crowded slate of games forces players to adjust their habits. It doesn’t really help to think there are only 26 games left in the regular season, either, especially as the Caps are trying to make up ground in the standings.
“It’s tough to think of it like a sprint,” Carlson said. It’s a funny year just because we play the teams in our conference every single game. That works well for us in the predicament that we’re in, that we put ourselves in.”