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How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

How Capitals players grappled with the decision of whether to opt out of the 2020 postseason

Monday's 5 p.m. deadline came and went and, though a handful of players around the league decided to opt out of the 2020 postseason, none of the Capitals players did. But don't mistake this to mean it was an easy decision. For perhaps the first time in their lives, the players had to honestly ask themselves if they wanted to play hockey and whether it was even possible to play the sport they love without putting the people they love at risk.

"I think for me, we went through every single thing the NHLPA and the NHL threw at you since day one in terms of the health risks and everything and you're weighing your options," Carl Hagelin said.

"I think around the league a lot of guys had their own personal situations, whether it was their families or just how their last couple months have been," Brenden Dillon said. "I think for us as NHL players we respect any decision made regarding that."

It wasn't a difficult question for everyone.

"I'm pretty sure my wife support me, it doesn't matter what decision I will make," Ovechkin said, "But obviously I miss hockey and they miss hockey so for me it's not even a question to skip it or play."

Winning a Stanley Cup was of course a factor for many players.

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When the 2020 postseason gets underway, almost five months will have passed since the league paused the season. With 24 teams in the postseason and over a full offseason break between games, there is a feeling that the Cup is truly up for grabs.

That is not something that players took lightly, but the pursuit of the Cup is not the only factor the players had to think about considering playing could potentially put one's family at risk.

"A lot of thoughts going into the decision, weighing the pros and cons," Lars Eller said. "For me personally, we're going to have a new addition to our family here in a couple weeks. I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen. But at the same time, I want to be with my team and also committed to that and want to win another Cup."

Eller's baby, his second child, is due Aug. 8. He said Tuesday that he intends to leave the bubble to be there for the birth.

Carl Hagelin is in a similar situation with his second child due in September.

"I spoke to my wife too and she said as long as you come back when the kid is born, you're welcome to leave," Hagelin said. "She knows hockey is a big part of my life and it's a big part of our family's life and so we have an opportunity here to win the Stanley Cup and that's the goal right now."

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It's a tricky tightrope that the NHL players are now forced to walk, trying to balance the safety of their families with their desire to get back on the ice.

While Ovechkin may have been adamant that whether to play or not was "not even a question," he was also very clear that he felt safety was the top priority.

"That's the most important thing for us right now to get safe," Ovechkin said. "I think for right now in this type of situation, you have to be careful, you have to be 100-percent sure you're not going to get COVID and you're not going to bring it to your families."

While they may not have opted out, concerns over safety have led to some players and even team personnel to make significant sacrifices. Head coach Todd Reirden and his wife decided it was best for her to take their immunodeficient son, Travis, to Valparaiso, Ind. while Reirden went back to practice. Nicklas Backstrom left his family back in Sweden when he returned for training camp.

"I think we decide pretty early that I was going to go over myself," Backstrom said. "We liked our setup better for my fiancee and kids to stay back in Sweden there. It wasn't really a long conversation."

But even with all the extra precautions being taken by the players and with coronavirus cases spiking in various parts of the country, still not one Capitals player opted out.

The NHL and NHL Players' Association negotiated health and safety protocols in great detail for the 2020 return to play plan. The players seem to be very satisfied with the results given that the league needed the NHLPA to approve the protocols in order to return to play.

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"I think everybody’s in a different situation at home with families and stuff and the one constant is that it’s an infectious disease and anybody can get it," Tom Wilson said, who is the team's player rep for the NHLPA. "I think we had to be confident in the protocols. We had to be confident that the league and the PA were taking all the different measures to make sure we’d be as safe as possible."

in the end, the players are back because they believe they can safely conclude the season given the protocols put in place by the NHL and NHLPA. The question is, are they right?

"Obviously we all love hockey and we want it back and if we can do it now and we're all very strict about this, I think we can make it happen," Backstrom said. "We all want sports back and we want to do what we love, you know?"

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Capitals could sit Lars Eller even if he is cleared in time for Game 1 against the Islanders

Capitals could sit Lars Eller even if he is cleared in time for Game 1 against the Islanders

The Capitals may be without forward Lars Eller in Wednesday's Game 1 against the New York Islanders even if he is cleared by the NHL in time to play. That was the thought of head coach Todd Reirden on Monday who expressed he would have to make a decision to avoid any possible injury that could keep him out longer.

Eller left the bubble in Toronto for the birth of his second child. He is now back in Toronto under quarantine in his room and cannot leave until he tests negative four times over a four-day period, per NHL protocols. It is unclear when Eller took his first test. If it was Monday, he will not be ready in time for Wednesday's game. If it was on Sunday, there's a chance he could be cleared to play by Wednesday.

"The NHL will be the ones that decide that, have the overall final call on it," Reirden said.

But even if Eller just manages to clear before the 3 p.m. game time on Wednesday, there's a chance he still may not play.

While under quarantine, Eller is not allowed to leave his hotel room at all.

"He’s not allowed to leave his hotel room, so he hasn’t been doing any exercise outside of his room and until we’re told differently that will be how it is," Reirden said.

That could be a problem.

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Eller first left the bubble on Aug. 5. By Wednesday, he will have gone a week without being on the ice or being able to exercise, beyond whatever he can do in his room. Typically in these situations, players get a practice in before getting back into the game lineup and Reirden made it clear on Monday that he may have to consider sitting Eller for Game 1 to prevent any sort of injury after missing a week.

“I think it’s something you have to consider is the player hasn’t been on the ice," Reirden said. "He obviously plays a huge role on our team and if you remember a few years ago the success and kind of the X factor that he was for our team when we won against Vegas. So I think it’s important that we handle this situation and make the proper the decision to give this player the best chance to be able to, if it’s not Game 1, then he’s ready to go for Game 2 and he’s as close to healthy in terms of conditioning-wise, he’s ready to go on the ice and be able to add the things he can add and do it safely so that we can have him for an extended time here in this playoffs because he is definitely a big factor in our team success.”

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If Eller is out, Travis Boyd will likely play in his place. Boyd centered the third line in Eller's absence in the last two round robin games.

Luckily, that is the only real question mark down the middle for Washington. Nicklas Backstrom, who missed a practice last week but played against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, said Monday that he had "no concerns" in terms of his status heading into the playoffs.

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New initiatives allow Capitals fans to stay connected to the team virtually

New initiatives allow Capitals fans to stay connected to the team virtually

Even though Caps fans cannot be in person to support their team on the road to the Stanley Cup this season, the Capitals organization and NHL found creative ways to keep the fan base involved in the team’s playoff run.

Through a number of virtual initiatives, Caps fans are now able to stay connected to their team and show their support from a distance while Washington competes at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. 

The team first encouraged fans to share personalized good luck messages and cheers for the players, which can be submitted at WashCaps.com/RallyCaps. A Capitals theme will be applied to the video, and fans will receive the video for personal use. They will also be featured on Caps’ social media channels.  

Next, it’s not Capitals hockey without Unleashing the Fury. Capitals fans can record themselves doing their best reenactment of the Unleash the Fury montage showed during games, and the videos will be used during playoff games and on social media. Videos can be submitted at WashingtonCaps.com/FanFury

The NHL also hopes to keep the tradition alive of fans showing their support with signs during warmups, so if Capitals fans make a handmade sign and tweet a photo with the hashtag #NHLWarmups with @Capitals tagged, the photo may be shown in the arena during warmups. 

In addition to these initiatives, there will also be a virtual gameday pregame show, behind the scenes footage and special digital content on the team’s social media channels, a virtual pep rally with radio play-by-play broadcaster John Walton, hockey ambassador Haley Skarupa and anthem singer Sgt. Major Bob McDonald, a Stanely Cup Playoff Bracket Challenge, special offers at the team stores at Capital One Arena and Medstar Capitals Iceplex, the chance for Club 365 members to submit photos of how they represent #ALLCAPS and matchup graphics and broadcast info featured on the video screens outside Capital One Arena.

The Capitals will begin their first-round playoff series with the New York Islanders on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m., so it’s time for fans to start showing their support virtually!

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