Wel­come Matt

Niska­nen’s re­turn could boost Caps

The Star Democrat - - FRONT PAGE -

(WPNS) — It was the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals’ first game with­out de­fense­man Matt Niska­nen in the lineup, and it some­how went even worse than the low ex­pec­ta­tions. The 8-2 loss to the Philadel­phia Fly­ers marked the first time the team had al­lowed that many goals in reg­u­la­tion since 2006. The two rookie blue lin­ers in the lineup looked over­whelmed and it all painted a bleak pic­ture of what the next month could look like if the Cap­i­tals didn’t make a move for an­other de­fense­man.

That was Oct. 14, and rather than hastily make a trade, Wash­ing­ton opted for pa­tience even as it was planted firmly in the mid­dle of the standings, an un­fa­mil­iar and un­com­fort­able po­si­tion for a team and a fan base that has been the reg­u­lar-sea­son’s best for the past two years. The Cap­i­tals have been re­warded for their pa­tience. Though still a work-in-progress they have be­come a much more sound de­fen­sive team with Niska­nen out. They’ve won six of their past eight games, av­er­ag­ing 2.00 goals-against in that span.

Wash­ing­ton seems to be inch­ing closer to the de­fense-first iden­tity it first es­tab­lished un­der Coach Barry Trotz, just as Niska­nen is near­ing a re­turn to the lineup af­ter in­jur­ing his left hand. It’s un­clear if he’ll play on the team’s two-game road trip, but Trotz said Niska­nen will travel with the team and prac­tice. As a right-shot de­fense­man who plays on the penalty kill, power play and against op­po­nents’ top for­wards at even-strength, his re­turn will round out the Cap­i­tals’ top two de­fense pair­ings, per­haps al­low­ing rook­ies Chris­tian Djoos and Madi­son Bowey to flour­ish and con­tinue de­vel­op­ing in more shel­tered roles.

How the Cap­i­tals look with Niska­nen back will also pro­vide a bet­ter in­di­ca­tion of the team’s progress nearly a quar­ter of the way into the sea­son.

“I think our struc­ture is un­real right now,” Bowey said.

“We’re get­ting on the same page,” goal­tender Braden Holtby said. “Ob­vi­ously ev­ery game is get­ting stronger. The big­gest thing is we keep on it, keep grow­ing, keep work­ing on the small things. Those are the lit­tle things that win you games, and that’s what’s help­ing us

right now.”

That fig­ures to im­prove once Niska­nen gets back in the lineup. Be­fore he got hurt, he was play­ing more than 23 min­utes per game, and with­out him, de­fense­man John Carl­son has skated an av­er­age 27 min­utes, 47 sec­onds in the 13 games Niska­nen has been side­lined. Carl­son is the NHL’s time-on-ice leader, and while he’s played some of his best hockey since his ca­reer 2014-15 sea­son, the Cap­i­tals also know that work­load isn’t ideal or sus­tain­able go­ing for­ward. In ad­di­tion to quar­ter­back­ing the team’s top power play unit, Carl­son has av­er­aged the most short­handed time of any Wash­ing­ton player since Niska­nen got hurt, and that’s one area Trotz could re­duce his min­utes.

“It’ll al­low Carly to stay a lit­tle fresher, prob­a­bly be a lit­tle more in­volved in the of­fense,” Trotz said. “He’ll prob­a­bly be a lit­tle sharper. He’s played a

lot of min­utes, and he’s done a re­ally good job.”

Said Carl­son: “I don’t think you ever get used to it. You just try not to man­age it, you try to make sure that you’re bring­ing the en­ergy and the en­thu­si­asm. It’s easy to make lit­tle mis­takes some­times. Ob­vi­ously when you’re play­ing that much, some­times easier things get harder. I think men­tally you’ve just got to be pre­pared and ac­cept the chal­lenge and go af­ter it.”

Niska­nen’s re­turn will also force the Cap­i­tals to start mak-

ing some lineup and ros­ter de­ci­sions. While salary cap space isn’t ex­pected to be an is­sue once he comes off long-term in­jured re­serve — Wash­ing­ton can just des­ig­nate for­ward An­dre Bu­rakovsky, out for at least an­other month af­ter surgery on his thumb, to long-term in­jured re­serve to free his $3 mil­lion in salary cap space — the Cap­i­tals will have eight de­fense­men and a max­i­mum of 23 play­ers on the ros­ter. When for­ward Tyler Grao­vac comes off in­jured re­serve, also ex­pected soon,

Wash­ing­ton will have to re­as­sign one player, and the only two who don’t need waivers are Bowey and 21-year-old for­ward Jakub Vrana.

Since that game against Philadel­phia, Bowey has played in all but one game, held out against Buf­falo last week be­cause of an undis­closed “lower-body” in­jury. Against Ed­mon­ton on Sun­day night, he played a ca­reer-high 16:51, record­ing his fifth as­sist in the past 12 games. Based on ice time, both he and Djoos have seem­ingly leapfrogged veter-

ans Tay­lor Chor­ney and Aaron Ness in the peck­ing order.

The Cap­i­tals hoped they would learn more about their young de­fense­men when Niska­nen got hurt. Now they’re go­ing to see just how far their team has come when he gets back in the lineup.

“The good thing about hav­ing some in­juries is you get an op­por­tu­nity,” Trotz said. “Some guys do get thrown into the fire, and they touch the stove and you see if they jump off it, or if they can han­dle the heat.”


The im­pend­ing re­turn of Cap­i­tals de­fense­man Matt Niska­nen (2) may al­low rook­ies Chris­tian Djoos and Madi­son Bowey to flour­ish and con­tinue de­vel­op­ing.

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