January 22 vs. Buffalo Sabres at Capital One Arena
Time: 7 pm
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, 106.7 FAN
Buffalo Sabres 1-3-0
Washington Capitals 2-0-2
Returning home from a four-game road trip to open the 2020-21 season, the Caps carried some mixed feelings with them. They were happy to have pulled points from all four games but miffed at the self-inflicted errors that led to them losing the last two games to the Penguins in Pittsburgh, two games they could have and should have won in regulation, the last one on Tuesday night in particular.
Wednesday was an off day for the Capitals, but it unfortunately wasn't a news-free day. The NHL levied a $100,000 fine against the team, which led to subsequent statements from the Capitals and from team captain Alex Ovechkin. From those statements and the revelation that four key members of the team - including Ovechkin - are now in a holding pattern for an undetermined period of time because of their appearance on the NHL's "Players Unavailable Due to Protocol List," we can deduce that the Capitals' self-inflicted errors during their recent road trip were not confined to the ice.
Apparently, a quartet of players -Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Ilya Samsonov - convened together in a hotel room at some point during the trip. While that may sound innocuous enough, such gatherings are expressly forbidden by the protocols that every player in the league agreed to adhere to as the 2020-21 season unfolds.
The upshot of all this is significant. For its home opener on Friday against the Buffalo Sabres - and for an undetermined period beyond the opener - the Caps will be without two top six forwards (Ovechkin and Kuznetsov), a top pairing defenseman (Orlov) and the goaltender (Samsonov) who started the season as the team's No. 1 netminder.
Video: Nicklas Backstrom | January 21
"Right now the players are in quarantine and at this point I believe it's four games, and then under review," says Caps coach Peter Laviolette of the expected absences of his quartet of players. "And so we'll go from there. There will probably be an announcement at some point."
Ovechkin seems likely to miss the greatest number of consecutive games he has missed in more than a decade, since an absence of six straight games because of a shoulder injury in November of 2009. Ovechkin may also be hard-pressed to maintain his streak of 15 straight seasons with 30 or more goals, which is tied with Hockey Hall of Famers Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner for the longest of its kind in NHL history.
Orlov's iron man streak of 401 consecutive games played - the fifth longest active streak in the league - will grind to a halt on Friday.
Those four players' assimilation of Laviolette's system is also now on pause, and the process of those players getting themselves to "game shape" after an abbreviated training camp with no preseason is also on hold. Whenever they are able to return to action they'll be playing with and against players that are likely to be in better shape and in possession of greater stamina. And needless to say, the Caps won't be putting their best possible team on the ice for as long as any of those players remains sidelined.
To say the situation is a less than ideal development for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations would be a significant understatement.
Video: T.J. Oshie | January 21
"It's a lesson for all of us I think, and it's not a situation you want to be in," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "But here we are. We're a tight group. Every time we're on the road we see a chance to really connect as a group, but obviously it's a violation and we'll learn from this and look forward. We've got to follow the rules.
"All of us are in this together; it doesn't matter if it's four guys out. We're a team and we do everything together, so we all take blame in this. But as I said earlier, we have to learn from this and be tighter and follow protocol."
As is always the case when players are missing from the lineup for any reason, it's next man up for the Capitals, starting Friday with the rematch against the Sabres. The Caps opened the 2020-21 campaign with a pair of games in Buffalo last week, winning 6-4 and 2-1, respectively.
Washington moved goaltender Craig Anderson from the taxi squad to the active roster; he and Vitek Vanecek will handle the goaltending choses in Samsono's absence. Jonas Siegenthaler sat out the first four games of the season as a healthy scratch, but he'll draw into the lineup on Friday in Orlov's stead. Up front, Conor Sheary gets back in the lineup and center Brian Pinho is expected to make his regular season NHL debut. That duo will fill in for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov while they quarantine. Pinho saw action in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Capitals last summer, filling in for an injured Backstrom.
"It's hard," admits Laviolette. "Those are four big pieces for us and important pieces, so they'll be missed. It's a difficult thing. We totally understand why the rules are in place, and there is no arguing with that. We want to be compliant. We made a mistake, and we need to do a better job. Honestly, even I made a mistake; I dropped my mask and it was out there at the end of the game, at the end of the postgame and the celebration [following the Caps' opening night win]. I've got to do a better job too."
Since facing the Caps in a pair of season-opening games at home last week, the Sabres have been on the road for a four-game trip that ends with a Sunday matinee match here in D.C. Buffalo split a pair of games in Philadelphia to start the journey, putting a 6-1 drubbing on the Flyers on Monday before falling 3-0 to Philly on Tuesday.
Already playing without goalie Linus Ullmark after the death of his father, the Sabres lost goaltender Carter Hutton in Tuesday's loss. Hutton caught an Ivan Provorov elbow in the head early in the second period, and subsequently left the contest at the start of the third. Jonas Johansson - who was on Buffalo's taxi squad at this time last week - stepped in for Hutton and played the final period.