- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2020

Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden thinks his team will feel a sense of relief when they arrive in Toronto, their designated hub city for the upcoming NHL restart. In terms of the threat of COVID-19, it’ll feel safer to be sealed inside the league’s so-called bubble; from the players’ perspective, there will be little to do besides focus on hockey.

Well, along with killing time in the hotel with ping-pong, cards and video games.

“Even though a lot of us have kids, we’re still kids at heart,” T.J. Oshie said. “Typically, we’re a big ‘Mario Kart’ team, so you kind of get some competition and some fun with that.”

The Capitals flew to Toronto Sunday to embark on the part-business trip, part-adventure that in two months’ time could see the team contending for another Stanley Cup.

They’re scheduled to play an exhibition game Wednesday at 4 p.m. against the Carolina Hurricanes before their three round-robin games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins next week.

Their record against those three teams will determine where they’re slotted among the top four seeds of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Teams No. 5 through No. 12 in both conferences will play a best-of-five series to determine the fifth through eight seeds, and the tournament will be reseeded after each round.

The Capitals are bringing 31 players to the bubble — 18 forwards, 10 defensemen and three goaltenders. Left behind was goalie Ilya Samsonov, who is out for the rest of the season with an undisclosed injury for which he’ll receive treatment back in the District. The organization’s No. 2 goalie is viewed as the franchise’s future in net and had a strong rookie season in 2019-20 in rotation with regular starter Braden Holtby.

Backing up Holtby instead are Pheonix Copley, who has a year’s worth of NHL-level experience under his belt, and prospect Vitek Vanecek.

“We’re going to need (Holtby) to be one of our best players as he was in ‘18 when we went on that run,” Lars Eller said. “And he’s got it in him. We have all the confidence in the world that Holts can carry us far, and I think Copley when he was up here before, last year, he did great. So yeah, we’re gonna miss Sammy but I feel good about the guys we have in net.”

Holtby, whose contract is up whenever this season ends, insists he has not been thinking about his uncertain future and believes he is physically and mentally ready to start every game for the Capitals.

“I think we’ve had enough time to rest and recover and put in some good work here to be in the right shape physically and mentally to go all out there and put everything into every game,” he said last week.

One of the keys to the Capitals‘ success or failure this summer will be what sort of defensive help Holtby will get. Reirden and the coaching staff were experimenting with the defensive pairings, and incorporating trade acquisition Brenden Dillon, in early March when the pandemic hit and the season was paused.

The pairings the Capitals are expected to start out with are Michal Kempny and John Carlson; Dillon and Dmitry Orlov; and Jonas Siegenthaler and Nick Jensen. Radko Gudas and high-performing prospect Martin Fehervary could also see the ice.

Washington’s other area of concern this season was the power play. For a unit that starred Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie, it wasn’t performing up to expectations, converting on a pedestrian 19.4% of chances.

Reirden has a few things on his mind as he strategizes for that: The rink at Scotiabank Arena will host roughly three games a day to start out. Combine that with the summer weather outside, and the ice conditions could be sloppier than normal. So the Capitals may employ a more shot-heavy power play as opposed to one contingent on quick, skillful passes and puck movement.

The 24 NHL teams about to resume competition got just two weeks of training camp before heading to Toronto and Edmonton. Veteran teams like the Capitals might be more likely to benefit from that expedited ramp-up period.

Players are still adapting to COVID-19 health protocols that will be in place for the restart — no sharing towels or touching your teammate’s water bottle, for example. The most drastic difference of all, though, will be the lack of fans in the seats.

Despite that, Backstrom thinks the extended stay in Toronto will be an advantage for his team.

“I think something that we’ve always been pretty good at is road games,” Backstrom said. “That’s something we were good at too on the road when we won (the Stanley Cup), so hopefully we can bring that good feeling.

“It’s time for us players to really connect. We’re going to be hanging out a lot. It’s a perfect scenario for us to get together as a group and really play for each other.”

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