After taking a day off, the Caps returned to the ice Thursday morning with some new faces and tweaked forward lines ahead of Friday’s showdown with the Penguins.
The big news, of course, was the much anticipated return of Matt Niskanen, Brett Connolly and Tyler Graovac to practice. Niskanen was in a non-contact jersey; Conolly and Graovac were full participants.
Rookie defenseman Madison Bowey also returned after being a late scratch Tuesday night in Buffalo with a lower-body injury.
Here’s how Coach Barry Trotz had his players lined up:
Stephenson – Backstrom – Oshie
Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Smith-Pelly
Vrana – Eller – Wilson
O’Brien – Beagle – Chiasson
Extras: Connolly, Graovac and Walker
Djoos – Carlson
Orpik – Bowey
Orlov – Chorney
Extra: Niskanen, Ness
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So, yeah, lots to catch up on. Let’s begin with the injuries:
- Niskanen said he felt good in his first skate back, but also indicated that he needs a little more time before being game-ready. He’s missed the past 11 contests.
- Connolly confirmed that he has missed the past six games with the first diagnosed concussion of his career. He also said he’s been cleared but isn’t sure if he’ll return vs. the Penguins.
- Connolly, who has one goal and one assist in 10 games, said he used the time on the shelf to hit the reset button on the start to his season. “It’s been a long couple of weeks,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of weeks to reset and recap my first nine [plus] games of the season. Hopefully I can come back, start fresh and have a strong game right away and build from there.”
- I didn’t get a chance to catch up with Graovac, who is also working his way back from an upper body injury. He was not assigned to a line, either, which leads me to believe he won’t face the Penguins.
- Bowey told me he’s good to go for the Pittsburgh game. It’ll be the rookie’s first game against the Penguins.
- Trotz said the players returning to practice will ratchet up the pressure on guys who are on the bubble or aren’t performing. “We have five lines and eight D,” Trotz said. “It should signal a lot of bells to a lot of guys in that room. There’s a lot of competition for the 23 spots now. When everybody gets healthy, we’re going to have to make some decisions. So if you’re in the lineup, you got to make sure you bring your ‘A’ stuff to stay in the lineup because the competition is back. That’s good for any hockey team.”
- The change to the forward lines is Chandler Stephenson moving up into the top-six and Jakub Vrana dropping to the third line. Stephenson, obviously, is pumped about his recent career trajectory, which has seen him go from waived to the AHL to the Caps' third line and now to the left side of Nicklas Backstrom's line. “It’s been quite the experience,” he said after practice. “With him and Osh, you just give them a target and they’ll find you. So you have to be ready and always bear down with those guys.”
- Trotz said the move was made simply because he’s looking to spark the Backstrom line. Backstrom has no goals in nine games and no points in seven. Oshie, meanwhile, has one goal in the past 11 games.
- Trotz also indicated that Stephenson’s promotion is more of an experiment—for now, anyway. “I think Chandler has played okay,” Trotz said. “I don’t think he was as good as he was the first couple of games—I’ll be honest about that. I just think he might be a good complement going forward here. So we just tried that in practice today. If you watched last game, we probably used five different people on the left side with Backy. We’re looking for a little spark here.”
- And there was this: hockey players introducing their young ones to the game. For 20-month-old Turner Chorney, it was his first time on the ice.