Peter Laviolette is under no illusion that the Washington Capitals will be a well-oiled machine when they take the ice Thursday night in Buffalo for their season opener. No team in the league will be, after all, not after an extended offseason gave way to a shortened training camp.
Particularly for Washington, with a new coach and a new system and new players, facing the Sabres will be a benchmark — a benchmark the Capitals hope to set with a win, but a benchmark nonetheless. They’ve had 10 days on the ice to acclimate, 10 days to prepare for a 56-game sprint with eight games against each East Division rival.
Whatever happens when the final horn sounds on Thursday night’s game, it’s the first step on what Washington hopes will be a season-long path of incremental improvement.
“I’m hoping we’re better in game 10 than we are in game one,” Laviolette said. “That’s not to say we can’t win game one or it’s not going to happen, I’m just saying there definitely should be growth.”
With the coronavirus pandemic altering the offseason makeup, Laviolette’s work to introduce a new system and get to know his players took place mainly over Zoom calls. He turned down Alex Ovechkin’s invitation to get dinner because Laviolette was still in the NHL-mandated quarantine; the pair later had lunch together.
So when camp opened Jan. 3, a dash toward the regular season began. Laviolette prioritized certain aspects to teach first, such as 5-on-5 play rather than special teams opportunities, because his team spends more time on the ice at full strength.
And he expected mistakes. Laviolette wanted to throw a lot of information at his players early in camp, allowing the coaching staff to dissect the miscues in film studies afterwards. Having tangible evidence of how the players were doing with his system — even if the answer was poorly — enabled Laviolette to pinpoint areas to prioritize.
Washington made do with two scrimmages rather than the usual exhibition games. The team has pushed the pace, improving fitness before a season filled with back-to-back contests.
“We’ve been skating hard, we’ve been competing, we played two scrimmages,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Maybe not the exact same as normal camp, but at the same time, I feel like we’re ready. I feel like we’re hungry to get going.”
The Capitals announced their roster Wednesday to begin the season, with no surprises regarding the makeup. While there are two inexperienced netminders — Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have started a combined 22 starts at the NHL level — there are veterans throughout the lineup.
And in a season with ample unknowns given the nature of the pandemic, the use of the taxi squad will be vital. There will likely be changes to that unit in the coming days, considering goaltender Craig Anderson was signed to a one-year deal and must pass through waivers before he can join the taxi squad.
The taxi squad currently includes forwards Daniel Carr and Brian Pinho, defenseman Martin Fehervary, and goaltenders Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale.
“We have new guys come and new coaches, so we don’t have a lot of time to practice everything and to watch the videos,” defenseman Dmitry Orlov said. “But I think in a short time we did a good job, so now everybody try to give his maximum to get ready for the season.”
That season arrives Thursday, with the first of two consecutive games against the Sabres. It will be a slog at times, with a concentrated schedule against divisional rivals creating playoff atmospheres immediately.
But Washington feels as ready as it can be, considering the situation.
“You hope your best game isn’t the first game of the year; you hope it’s the last game of the year,” Laviolette said. “And so, it’s going to be a work in progress.”