The Washington Capitals returned to 5-on-5 play for the first time since March with their first intrasquad scrimmage of Phase 3 training camp Saturday. Despite the four-month break from competitive games, several players picked right up where they left off.
Alex Ovechkin scored a goal about 3 minutes into the game for the White Team’s only score, converting a Globetrotter-esque tic-tac-toe set up from linemates Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The fourth line of Nic Dowd, Garnet Hathaway and Richard Panik, created right before the stoppage in play after the trade-deadline acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk, resumed the impressive play it displayed during a brief seven-game span together. Dowd drew a hooking penalty that resulted in a penalty shot early in the contest, and the line generally out-possessed, out-chanced and outworked the third line of Kovalchuk, Carl Hagelin and Lars Eller for the better part of the afternoon. And, of course, Wilson’s chirp game was in midseason form throughout.
Daniel Sprong Steps Up
Despite his line being outplayed by the fourth trio, Eller turned in his usual solid three-zone effort. Deadline acquisition Brenden Dillon brought his expected physical brand of hockey to a contest that featured little hitting, fellow defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler and his stick seemed to be everywhere and winger Daniel Sprong made a strong statement to be considered as a top-six emergency replacement with two goals for the Red Team in its 3-1 victory.
Travis Boyd filled in for T.J. Oshie on the right wing of Nicklas Backstrom’s line, opposite Jakub Vrana, and potted an empty-net insurance goal for Team Red. The next day he was tabbed by head coach Todd Reirden as the frontrunner to replace Eller when the Caps’ center leaves the team for the birth of his second child around Aug. 8, the day before Washington concludes round-robin play against Boston.
Reirden Pleased with Camp
Reirden was pleased with what he saw as the first week of camp culminated and the team transitioned from conditioning, skill work and small games to 5-on-5 hockey and systems work.
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“It’s been, by design, a constant buildup as far as how we were going to get to today’s action,” Reirden said. “We did a little 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 the other day, and then today was our first 5-on-5 day. Just seeing how quickly things happen for players was noticeable. Obviously now there’s 10 people on the ice, and there’s not as much time and space. It’s important that we start phasing that in now, and we will continue to moving forward with the rest of our times on the ice.”
The Caps continued moving into more systems work and game situations with their workout Sunday. Washington is scheduled to fly to Eastern Conference hub city Toronto on Aug. 26, and Reirden hinted there would be a more structured scrimmage later in the coming week.
“We did some good things in the scrimmage. I thought the pace was good, and we had guys competing and playing the closest thing we’ve had to a 5 on 5 game.”Capitals Coach Todd Reirden
Saturday’s game lasted about 30 minutes and was very much controlled by the coaches.
The first third of the scrimmage featured shifts of about 45 seconds that were concluded by a coach’s whistle, with the team in control of the puck maintaining possession during changes. The next 10 minutes or so saw similar-length shifts ended by a whistle followed by a face off to begin the ensuing shift. And the last portion was more free-flowing, with changes on the fly.
Throughout the game, the coaches made sure to maintain matchups, with the first and second lines always skating against each other, the third line always playing against the fourth and the remaining two lines of forwards in camp squaring off.
As expected, the top two lines kept it on cruise control most of the time, while the fourth line brought its usual energy to the ice. Sprong’s line, which included Hershey Bears scoring-leader Philippe Maillet and Beck Malenstyn, clearly outplayed its opposing trio of first-round draft pick Connor McMichael, Garrett Pilon and Shane Gersich in a spirited battle.
Maillet showed his speed and skill throughout the contest, setting up both of Sprong’s goals. Sprong’s first tally featured an impressive mix of strength and skill as he bullied his way to the front of the net, outmuscling Gersich before spinning to get the puck to his forehand and beating Braden Holtby low to the glove side.
Holtby played about half the game for the White Team before being replaced by Vitek Vanecek. Pheonix Copley went the distance in net for the Red Team.
Vanecek or Copley Next Man Up?
Figuring out who might be Holtby’s backup may turn out to be one of Reirden’s most important camp decisions if Ilya Samsonov continues to be listed as “unfit to participate.”
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“I’m taking it day by day, and we’ll see Ilya’s (Samsonov) availability tomorrow,” Reirden said. “They’ve both been really sharp. Vitek (Vanecek) continues to get better. Pheonix (Copley) is more a proven commodity. We’ve had success with him in the past, so we’re aware of what he can do. I think you see the upside of Vitek and how his game’s growing – a two-time all-star in the American League. It’s something that we feel comfortable with as far as both of those goalies. When we get to that situation we’ll be prepared.”
Things can turn quickly, and you have to make sure you’re prepared for whatever comes your way and have players in areas where they can fill the void that may be in front of us. For us it’s good to see Travis (Boyd) in both spots, and I thought he did a fine job in the scrimmage.Capitals Coach Todd Reirden
The other big decision for Reirden will be determining who steps in when Eller departs and if Hagelin also is forced to leave later in the tournament to get back home for the same reason. Hagelin’s baby is not due until September, so still being alive in the tournament at that point is a problem Reirden would be happy to encounter.
“He’s a guy who can play both positions for us,” Reirden said of Boyd after Sunday’s workout, “and I think that’s what’s going to be important here just as we’re finalizing all the last players we’re going to bring – the versatility of some of our players.”
The Capitals face Carolina in a pre-tournament exhibition game July 29 in Toronto before opening round-robin play against Tampa Bay Aug. 3. That will mark the beginning of what Reirden and the players hope will be a long journey into the fall.
“We’ll continue to evolve every day, and maybe (Monday) we’ll plan to do some systems stuff for the first half and then maybe we’ll scrimmage again,” Reirden said. “You have these plans, but you have to make sure everyone is healthy and you have availability of everybody the next day.”