- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2018

LAS VEGAS — The Washington Capitals want to keep doing what’s working for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That means everything, including the now-iconic “hot lap” tradition at practices on the road.

Lars Eller sped around the rink to kick off Wednesday’s practice, a duty he took over from coach Barry Trotz after the Capitals lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at Vegas.

After Jay Beagle inadvertently began the tradition in Columbus, the team always kept the skater the same until the Capitals lost on the road, which signaled the need for a change. Alex Ovechkin held the mantle for most of May until Trotz took over before Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Maybe there’s something to it: The Capitals are 9-3 on the road this postseason and have not lost back-to-back road games. And they haven’t dropped a game, away or at home, since Eller started doing the hot lap.

Hockey players are up there with baseball players as some of the most superstitious athletes. As the Capitals lead the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1, sitting one win away from their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, don’t expect them to discard any team or individual superstitions even one day too early.

That’s especially true of keeping their “playoff beards,” an age-old hockey habit, even if they don’t look equally fashionable on everyone.

“I’ve got kind of a baby face so when there’s hair on there it doesn’t look that great. It’s a little itchy,” T.J. Oshie said, but he added, “It’s actually nice, I’ve never been able to grow it out this long, exiting the playoffs so much earlier. Maybe I’ll keep it rolling.”

“It’s fine for me. I don’t really care how I look. I have wife and kids,” Evgeny Kuznetsov joked. “I don’t have to worry about that.”

Players couldn’t agree on which of them was the most superstitious.

“It’s hard to mention one without another,” Eller said.

John Carlson mentioned Dmitry Orlov on a short list, but Orlov said “it’s a lie for sure.” Jay Beagle picked linemate Chandler Stephenson after about one second of thought, but Stephenson rebutted.

“I don’t really do anything. My only thing is I wear the recovery boots before the game for a couple minutes and just hang out,” Stephenson said. “I don’t know if it’s a joke because I don’t do very much.”

Ovechkin has his moments. During an interview before Game 2 of the Lightning series, he moved a stool so it was in precisely the same spot as when he did interviews before Game 1 — even though he wasn’t sitting in it.

Of course, not all superstitions are held by all players. When the Capitals finished off the Lightning in Game 7, they were awarded the Prince of Wales Trophy for winning the Eastern Conference. Many say touching that trophy spells bad luck for a team’s Stanley Cup chances. But Ovechkin picked it right up and brought it over for a team picture.

That may be because the Capitals’ sentiment toward their routines and quirks is not life-and-death, but playful.

“For some guys, it’s little things we have fun with. We don’t do it for anybody else, but for us as a group,” Eller said. “(The hot lap) is just a good way for us to start practice off with a laugh and smile.”

Traditions like these could help the Capitals approach Thursday’s Game 5, their first opportunity to clinch the Stanley Cup title, like they would approach any other game.

“I think it’s important not to change much. The superstitions and stuff, that’s just fun ways to get prepared for the game,” Oshie said. “The main focus is just playing how we have to play and playing how we have been playing. There’s nothing special or out of the ordinary. It’s just everyone being on board with the same gameplan.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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