Caps hope the all-star break helps them get healthy without losing momentum.
Braden Holtby’s eyes quickly scanned the locker room as he considered his teammates and the three-day break they were about to get.
“We’ve had a lot of guys playing through a lot of stuff,” Holtby said Thursday. “. . . The rest will be good to heal those guys up and make sure we have a full roster.”
The Washington Capitals had rolled through December and January, with their 20-4-4 record in those two months moving them atop the league standings with 72 points. When a team has momentum like that, it often doesn’t want to stop playing. But the Capitals were eager for the all-star break, hopeful it would help them get much-needed rest after a packed schedule to start the season. Washington will get another break in two weeks, when the team has a five-day bye week, something new in the NHL this season.
Lengthy breaks can derail a team that’s been playing well, something the Capitals experienced a year ago when a snowstorm caused game cancellations just before the all-star break. But Washington isn’t worried about history repeating itself, instead focusing on what the rest can do for the Capitals going forward.
“Our goal is to be ready for playoffs,” Holtby said. “And rest always helps when it comes to healing bodies this time of year.”
The Capitals have been by far the league’s healthiest team this season, losing just 18 man-games to injury. The St. Louis Blues, the second-healthiest, have lost 69 man-games. Coach Barry Trotz has attributed his team’s health to balancing minutes in an attempt to tax his top players less. But even in doing that, he sensed the fatigue ahead of the all-star break as Washington crawled to the finish line after a stretch of 14 games in 26 days in January.
“Our schedule was catching up to us,” Trotz said. “You could tell in our play. You could tell we had some tired legs out there. So, the break couldn’t come at a better time for us, really.”
Defenseman John Carlson missed the six games before the break with an undisclosed “lower-body” injury, and Trotz said he’s working out in Florida this weekend and is expected to be back in the lineup Tuesday against the New York Islanders, the first game after the break. Center Jay Beagle missed a game because of an illness that has been going around the locker room.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are a little bit sick and some guys who are banged up this time of year,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “Any rest you can get is good for you. You’ve got to use it wisely and know that we have a tough schedule coming back, so it’s not three days of full vacation, but it’s three days of rest and hopefully we use it that way.”
But the Capitals didn’t handle long breaks very well last season, and this year, they have a 24-2-2 record with just one day’s rest. A January snowstorm last year caused two games to be postponed and that, coupled with the all-star break, meant Washington played just two games in two weeks. The team continued to win down the stretch, but it wasn’t the dominant force it had been earlier in the season, and Washington again lost in the second round of the playoffs.
The break didn’t help, but the Capitals also let off the gas a little because of their large lead. “You finally pick your head up once the break is over and you realize where you’re at,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. That’s not possible this season with how competitive the Eastern Conference is. Even after a strong January, the Capitals are still just four points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have one game in hand.
While several players said this break and the bye week coming up feel different from last season, there were still lessons learned. Schmidt said it’s important to rest but also be mindful about keeping the body moving, so he likes to do some swimming. But the entire team could use time away from the ice.
“We haven’t had any time off, you know? We’ve played every other day, it seems like,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “We’ve just been able to roll it over, and that’s been nice, but I think we need some time off. Guys just eventually start to break down, you know? If anything, I think it’ll be good for us.”
“We’ve had a lot of guys playing through a lot of stuff,” Capitals all-star goalie Braden Holtby said.