The Washington Capitals will play for the first time in a week when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS).
The Capitals will also take the ice with a healthy roster for the first time since a 5-4 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 19.
Following a 7-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 7, Washington had its next three games postponed — against the Flyers on Tuesday and at the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday and Saturday — because those teams have players in NHL COVID-19 protocol and shut down their facilities.
So the Capitals (6-3-3) are understandably eager to get back to competition again, and facing the Penguins (6-5-1), one of their biggest rivals in the MassMutual East Division, adds to that feeling.
“We know the importance of every game,” Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon said Saturday. “All these [games] are intradivisional, so we know the importance, especially now with teams that have been off for a while and guys coming in and out of the lineup. We want to be sharp, we want to start well and we want to have a big game here on Sunday against an important opponent.”
The layoff gave the Capitals time to get back to full strength. This week, goalie Ilya Samsonov and forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana were removed from COVID-19 protocol; forward T.J. Oshie returned to practice after missing one game with an upper-body injury; and defenseman Justin Schultz practiced for the first time since he was hit in the face with the puck during a 6-3 win against the New York Islanders on Jan. 28.
The Capitals’ roster issues began Jan. 20, when Kuznetsov, Samsonov, forward Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Dmitry Orlov entered COVID-19 protocol.
Next came injuries that resulted in Schultz (four games), Oshie, and forwards Tom Wilson (lower body; two games) Lars Eller (upper body; four games), and Conor Sheary (knee; one game) each missing time in addition to Kuznetsov (eight games), Samsonov (eight), Orlov (five), Ovechkin (four) and Vrana (one).
Washington was able to extend its team-record season-opening point streak to nine games (6-0-3), including 3-0-1 with Ovechkin sidelined. But the Capitals have lost three straight since.
In that way, having six days without a game was good for Washington, giving it time to get healthy and, for the players returning from longer layoffs — Kuznetsov, Samsonov and Schultz — extra practices to regain some of their conditioning and timing. Samsonov was sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League on Sunday to help get in some game action.
“I think that’s big, guys getting healthy, guys feeling a lot better going into real games and stuff like that,” defenseman John Carlson said. “That’s big as a player. We didn’t have that long of a training camp, and if you’re out 30 percent of the season so far, that’s a huge thing to overcome. Yes, they would all kind of be fine going out doing their thing, but I think at this point they’d probably feel a lot more confident in themselves to be able to do that than before.”
The Islanders and Florida Panthers are among the teams that benefited from unscheduled time off because of postponed games by sharpening their play in practices. The Islanders are 2-0-1 since having two games against the Sabres postponed, and the Panthers went 5-0-1 in their first six games after having two games against the Carolina Hurricanes postponed.
The Capitals hoped to similarly utilize this break by working in practice on the areas where they were struggling, including team defense. Washington allowed at least three goals in five straight and in 10 of its 12 games this season, including 16 goals in its past three losses.
“You were able to go out and work on some things and get practice, and now we have to get back to work,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “We’ve got to get our train moving back in the right direction. So that’s on us now. We’ve got everybody available. We need to get it done.”
The negative for the Capitals is they’ve had to wait for their chance to rebound from the loss to the Flyers and end their losing streak. They’ve had a lot of time to think about that and haven’t forgotten their previous game against the Penguins, which they led 3-1 and 4-2 before losing in overtime.
“Under normal circumstances you would like to play as quickly as you can after a loss to redeem yourself,” Eller said. “But I also think regardless, you have to move on mentally pretty quickly and I think everybody is doing that. And I think you know next game we play in Pittsburgh we should be fired up not just because we lost the last three games, but because of what happened last time we were in there, and hopefully learn from those lessons.
“So it’s just not about the last three games, it is stuff prior to that too, and it is a big game.”