Finally, hockey is back. The Capitals will play the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday at 4 p.m. from the NHL bubble in Toronto. You can watch it on NBC Sports Washington. While this is technically an exhibition game, it will mean so much more than that. Why?
It has been 142 days since Washington last played against another team and that includes a two-week training camp. In a normal season, the first preseason game comes just days into camp. Most of the NHL regulars don't play in that first game, but there are several games throughout the preseason to give players something to look forward to rather than just endless practice.
There are going to be a lot of players on the ice Wednesday relieved to see someone in an opposing jersey.
“I think we are all looking forward to getting a real game-like situation," Capitals winger Garnet Hathaway said. "Even though it’s an exhibition, we haven’t played in a game in almost 140 days right now or something like that. So I think just going through the routine will be nice, getting that game-day routine, warmup routine, just get familiar with it. Looking forward to it.”
This is the Caps' only exhibition game
Each team in the NHL will get only one exhibition game. This is it for Washington. After this, the games matter. All the preparation, all the comfort, all the timing can be worked out on Wednesday. It's the only chance.
For Capitals coach Todd Reirden, something he has stressed as the biggest goal for the players in this game is just to get comfortable. The various health and safety protocols in place will be present in the games and Reirden does not want the players to have to think about those little details when they get to round-robin next week.
"More than anything, it's make our players feel as comfortable as possible," Reirden said. "Get used to the fact that there's no fans in the building, get used to the fact that you use a towel once on the bench and then it's out of play for the game, how you move down the bench, what you're doing for hydration during the periods. It's all different. That's the type of stuff that I don't want the players thinking about come game time and especially during meaningful game time. That's something that's a priority for us is just getting them to be comfortable during the new norm."
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This is Reirden's only chance to test the lineup
There are a number of personnel decisions Reirden will have to make heading into the playoffs and he won't have a full preseason to figure it out or to tinker with different combinations. He just gets this game. As a result, you can expect the full lineup to dress. It's not the time to give the Black Aces a shot.
No room for reserves or depth players here. This will be as close to the real deal as possible in an "exhibition". Much more so than even a late September preseason game where teams are just getting in condition to play October hockey. Washington has the luxury of not going directly into the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the round-robin games against Tampa Bay, Boston and Philadelphia still matter for seeding and for cohesion.
Reirden was tight-lipped on what the lineup would be on Wednesday, other than to say that Braden Holtby would start in goal. Per Reirden, he expected every player would be available for practice Tuesday so it does not appear there are any injury or COVID testing issues with the team. Something else to keep in mind, in addition to the 18 skaters allowed in a normal NHL game, each team will be able to dress one extra forward and one extra defenseman. My guess would be Travis Boyd and Martin Fehervary will be those players as they are the two most likely to play when needed. Boyd, in fact, is on deck to play third-line center when Lars Eller leaves to be with his family for the birth of his second child.
Of all the questions surrounding this team heading into the postseason, Reirden will have only 60 minutes to determine if he likes what he sees. Is Boyd the right answer for third-line center? Is Fehervary the No. 7? Is Dmitry Orlov the best option to play on the right of the second defensive pair? Is Michal Kempny able to handle a top-pair workload?
Carolina is going to take this seriously
I am not going to sit here and say the fact that because it's the Hurricanes, that is somehow going to make this game more intense. Their playoff series was now over a year ago and it is still just an exhibition game. I don't think either team is going to be entering Wednesday's game looking to "send a message" to the other.
But that doesn't mean this game won't have meaning.
The next game the Caps will play after the exhibition game will be a round-robin game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Carolina, however, will move on to play the New York Rangers in a best-of-five series for the chance to make the final eight teams in the conference. While one game does not feel like enough for the Caps, at least they won't be going from here straight into a do-or-die situation. Carolina, however, will be and that means they are going to be playing Wednesday's game with a certain intensity that Washington will have to match.
"I think we need to take this exhibition game very seriously," Carl Hagelin said. "We know that Carolina is going to play hard, obviously. It is their one game before they play extremely meaningful games so I think for us we need to be ready. "
The team is looking to get its chemistry back
Practicing is one thing, but a team cannot get its chemistry back until it plays together in true game situations. The Caps will have 60 minutes to get on the same page offensively, defensively and on special teams. They can't waste that.
"I think you can only get so much out of practice," Nickas Backstrom said. "The timing comes from games and scrimmage isn’t the same so it will be fun playing against a normal team and get back.”
"I think right now we are just getting back into it and seeing how [Wednesday] goes with our own structure," Hathaway said, "And once we dial that in and stick to that detail, game by game and series by series we will start figuring out how we will match up with other teams.”
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