Caps' McIlrath rewarded with call up after impressing in Hershey

Dylan McIlrath

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Dylan McIlrath was part of the Capitals' third defensive pairing during the team's morning skate on Thursday, paving the way for him to see his first NHL action since 2019 when Washington hosts the Florida Panthers (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

"It's unreal. Being a guy that's spent most of his career in the minors, you never know when you're going to have your last NHL game," McIlrath told reporters. "So I just try to enjoy every moment in the NHL as best I can, especially with a team like this -- a veteran group that wants to win. It means a lot."

McIlrath was called up on Wednesday from the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, after captain Alex Ovechkin left the team following the death of his father. 

McIlrath -- who signed a two-year, two-way contract with Washington in the summer of 2021 -- had impressed the Capitals' coaching staff with his play in Hershey. Head coach Peter Laviolette said part of the reason the defenseman was called up was to reward McIlrath for the work his done in the minors.

"He's played really well down there. He's a leader on their team," Laviolette said. "His minutes right now are first out the door. He plays against the toughest opponents. He's been a good penalty killer, a good leader. We have an opportunity with seven defensemen here to call somebody up and take a look, so we're going to do that."

Laviolette praised McIlrath's penalty defense multiple times during his podium session on Thursday and said "there's a chance" the 30-year-old will be on the penalty kill unit against the Panthers.


McIlrath also offers something the Capitals are currently lacking, especially in John Carlson's absence: a right-shot defenseman. 

"A right-shot defenseman brings a different element to the backend," Laviolette said. "Just in general, he's a bigger guy, he plays a little bit of a different game."

A former first-round pick by the New York Rangers in 2010, McIlrath has been unable to stabilize himself at the NHL level since making his debut in 2013. He's played for three different NHL teams over the span of seven years but appeared in just 66 career NHL games. 

McIlrath said overall consistency has been something he's been working on since he last played in an NHL game three-plus years ago.

"That's been my biggest thing throughout my career," he said. "I've shown in spurts that I can play in the NHL and I've played well. But there's times that I can struggle, too. I just really try to hone in my game and not stray away from that too much, just try to be consistent every night."

McIlrath's arrival in Washington has come during a pivotal stretch for the team. The Capitals enter Thursday night with 62 points, just one point in front of the Islanders for the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers are lurking right behind both teams with 60 points of their own, making the two points on Thursday night even more crucial.

After Thursday's important clash with the Panthers concludes, the Capitals are headed down to Raleigh to face the Hurricanes in the Stadium Series on Saturday night. Although the Hurricanes' game will be a spectacle in its own right with it being in the elements outside, those two points are just as important as any game this season.

So, will McIlrath still be with the Capitals after Thursday night, or will he return to Hershey? He's not worried about that whatsoever.

"It's one day at a time. I've learned not to look too far ahead of things," he said. "If I make the flight tonight, that'd be special, but I'm just worried about tonight first."