- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2021

Connor McMichael hopped on the ice, skated toward goal and flung a shot into the empty net, the only Capitals player on the rink at the time. McMichael sent another puck on net before the rest of his teammates joined him, ending the rookie’s solo skate.

The 2019 first-round pick made his NHL debut Sunday in Washington’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres, put into that situation because of the Capitals’ multiple absences.

After a positive coronavirus case, Washington is without forwards Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Plus, the team missed winger Tom Wilson, out with a lower-body injury that’s considered day-to-day.

So there McMichael was, starting on the left wing in the Capitals’ second line. As the 20-year-old exited the locker room, his teammates let him have his moment in the spotlight — even minus fans in the stands — marking the beginning of the top prospect’s career.

“This is what you work for your whole life,” McMichael said. “Obviously, a little bit of nerves. But I thought I had a good game and I had a lot of fun.”

With McMichael in the lineup for a team severely short-handed — missing three top-six forwards, a top-four defenseman and a netminder — Washington again earned a point, sending its fourth straight game to overtime.

But with those stars out, the Capitals fell short. Still, there were positives.

“I like where we’re at points-wise and not losing a game in regulation yet,” veteran T.J. Oshie said. “I’d like to win a couple of these shootouts.”

McMichael was a powerhouse last season playing for the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. He scored 47 goals and added 55 assists in 52 games. And at the World Juniors — representing Canada — McMichael posted eight points in seven contests, including a goal in the semifinal before Canada lost to the United States in the championship.

After the World Juniors, McMichael stopped at his parents’ house, grabbed his belongings and traveled to Washington. He then spent the next seven days in a D.C.-area hotel, waiting out the NHL-mandated quarantine period with takeout and trips to the hotel’s gym.

He joined the taxi squad Thursday, and coach Peter Laviolette said he was “in the mix” to make his debut. It didn’t come Friday, in Washington’s shootout win over the Sabres. But Laviolette figured McMichael’s chance would come sooner rather than later, considering the absences.

And the opportunity presented itself Sunday, with Wilson’s lower-body injury leading to McMichael’s promotion to the active squad. 

“It was exciting,” McMichael said. “And the first person that I texted was my parents, and they were excited, too.”

McMichael’s influence was minimal down the stretch, though he featured plenty in the first two periods. He was called for a hooking penalty and nearly combined with Richard Panik for a goal in his 9:54 time on the ice.

“It’s always a tall order jumping into a team, especially when you don’t have a training camp,” Laviolette said. “Coming out of quarantine, he’s had one real practice with the team. For him to jump into a competitive game like tonight, I thought he did a good job.”

Washington found success through some of the more well-known names available — Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom scored power-play goals, with Backstrom’s coming from behind the goal line. Schultz opened the scoring with his first goal for the Capitals.

Washington struggled in the second period again, though, called for three penalties and conceding on two of the subsequent power plays. Then Eric Staal gave Buffalo a momentary 3-2 edge on a power play in the third before Backstrom’s score knotted the matchup again.

That forced the Capitals’ fourth straight overtime. In that period, goaltender Vitek Vanecek — who finished with 45 saves — made three critical stops. Linus Ullmark prevented a breakaway attempt for Backstrom, then held Washington scoreless in the shootout to seal Buffalo’s win.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway is the debut of McMichael. He might not become a regular — at least, not right away. 

Before he took the ice for his solo skate, his teammates in the locker room talked with him. They’d been in his skates before, after all.

“So they knew I was probably nervous and they just made me feel comfortable out there,” McMichael said.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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