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SKATE SHAVINGS - News and Notes from Caps' Morning Skate 1/28

Oshie namechecks Taysom Hill as he prepares to start a game at center for first time as a pro, Backstrom returns to the lineup, more

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

This Island Earth - Two nights after their first meeting of the season produced a typically low-scoring, tight-checking game, the Caps and the New York Islanders are back at it on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.

In the last nine games played between these two teams, Washington's Tuesday night triumph is the only one achieved by the home team. In those nine games, the Caps have edged the Isles 24-23 in aggregate scoring, and that includes a wild 6-4 Washington win on the Island last January and a 5-3 New York win here in the District just under a year ago.

Typically, recent games between the Caps and Isles don't involve much scoring.

Among NHL teams that have played at least five games this season, the Isles are tied for third in fewest 5-on-5 goals against (eight) while the Caps are tied for 12th with a dozen. On the other side of that coin, the Capitals are tied for second in the circuit with 18 goals at 5-on-5 in their seven games, while the Isles have scuffled in that regard, netting seven goals at 5-on-5 in six games, which is tied for 25th in the league. 

Positive Vibration - Some losses get you nothing, some losses get you a point. And although every win in the NHL gets you two points, some victories can carry some hidden value beyond those two points. Such is the case with Washington's Tuesday night win over the Islanders.

Justin Schultz's game-winning goal came with 26.4 seconds left, giving the Caps a 3-2 victory on a night in which they started without five key regulars and then lost two more - both of them centers - during the game. Not only were the Capitals able to avoid a fifth straight trip to overtime, something they've never done in nearly half a century in the league, they were able to ensure the Isles got no points, which is a meaningful outcome in a shortened season in which every game is played against a divisional foe. 

But beyond all of those implications, there is still extra value in Tuesday's victory, so says Zdeno Chara, who captained the Boston Bruins for a decade and a half before signing with the Caps as a free agent last month.

"I really believe so," says Chara, when asked if there was more value than just the obvious two points in Tuesday's win. "Obviously we are facing some challenges and some adversity as far as missing some guys in the lineup due to COVID protocols or due to injuries, and I really feel that the group of guys really came together. We realize that we have to play for each other, have much tighter games, and you can really see how everybody really embraced that challenge. That's the kind of a situation we are in early on in the season, and I really believe that guys are battling for every puck on every shift and that's a great sign for a great team." 

Carl Hagelin, now in his 10th season in the league, concurs.

"I think so," says Hagelin. "Every team is going to have to go through adversity, and I think that was proof of that. You've got some of your top guys out of the lineup, and then some of your other top guys who aren't with us for the last 10 minutes of the game, and other guys step up. I think that just gives the team a boost, knowing that no matter who is on the ice, we're going to be the better team and whatever player you're playing with [on your line], he is going to beat the other guy you're playing against."

A week earlier to the day, the Caps found themselves on the other side of that equation in Pittsburgh after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins in a game in which the Pens were down to just four defensemen for the game's final period and overtime.

Washington has enjoyed a remarkable run of overall team health over the last half decade or so, and even this rash of absences comes with an asterisk, since four of the players missing in action aren't actually injured, they're out because of the NHL's COVID protocol.

"I think this is what's going to happen this year," says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. "It's very unfortunate, but at the same time, that's what we all want to strive for. Even if guys are going to be in and out of the lineup, we still want to play good. We want to have the foundation of being a good team. 

"Last game, I think we actually played a good hockey game. We'll keep building on that. Whoever is going to be in or out of the lineup, you would prefer to have them in there but at the same time you've just got to deal with it and keep moving forward."

Middle Man - In the waning minutes of what was a 2-2 game on Tuesday against the Isles, Washington lost the services of each of its top two centers: Backstrom and Lars Eller. Backstrom is back in the lineup and ready to go tonight, but Eller is ailing from an upper body injury and is day-to-day.

With several minutes left in Tuesday's game, Caps coach Peter Laviolette deployed T.J. Oshie as a pivot for a shift or two, so that Nic Dowd and Mike Sgarbossa wouldn't have to alternate every other shift.

In Eller's absence tonight, Oshie will slide into the center slot on Washington's second line, skating between Conor Sheary and Richard Panik.

"Lars is out tonight, and therefore we needed a center," says Laviolette. "This does the least amount of shuffling through our lines. I know it's not a natural position, but Tom [Wilson] is possibly available and a game-time decision tonight, and so that's the way we rolled through it with the lines today, and we'll make that decision tonight. 

"T.J. is a smart player. This is a short-term fix until we get some bodies back, and he fits into the mix of a top two-line player, and we wanted to keep it with that type of an attack through the top two lines." 

"I think the biggest thing is just in the [defensive] zone," says Oshie. "Typically as a winger, your job is not as big a priority as most centermen, where you're not in quite as many battles. There is a little bit more skating because you're going more of the full length of the ice on each side. I think there is going to be maybe a little bit more skating and a little bit more battling in the [defensive] zone, but I'm very comfortable coming back into our end and playing like a center. And I'll have to bear down on a couple more face-offs."

What was it like to be thrust into the position at the spur of the moment late in a 2-2 game on Tuesday?

"At the end of the game I felt very comfortable in that spot," says Oshie. "And I've been able to watch one of the best here for a while, so I'm excited to go out there tonight and try to do the job.

"I actually like it. I think you're around the puck a lot more. As a winger, I feel like there are moments in games where the puck might just not come your way, and as a centerman I feel like you're always around the puck, whether you're playing [defense] or offense. You're at least around the puck and you're more engaged."

As far as Oshie can recall, he has not played as a pivot from the start of a game as a professional.

"I don't think I have ever started a game at center since turning pro," says Oshie. "[University of] North Dakota would probably be the last time I played center, my last year there. I had two pretty good centermen before that in [Travis] Zajac and [Jonathan] Toews."

At the conclusion of his high school career, Oshie was drafted into the NHL as a center by the St. Louis Blues as the 24th overall choice in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau issuedan extremely accurate scouting report of the Minnesota high school star at the time.

Oshie hasn't played any center in his time in Washington, though he is frequently tasked with taking right-dot draws, particularly on special teams. Although it's been a while since he skated a regular shift in the middle of the ice, Oshie is excited and not at all nervous or anxious as he prepares for the new challenge.

"I'm not at all nervous or worried about it," says Oshie. "I feel very confident going in. I'll try to do my best Taysom Hill impression, where can play all different positions. I don't think I'll compare to that guy, but I played center basically my whole life, and I feel very comfortable going out there tonight and knowing what I've got to do in every situation."

In The Nets Vitek Vanecek will start his fifth consecutive game for the Capitals, and he will be in the crease for the sixth time in eight games this season when he faces the Isles tonight.

Vanecek stopped 32 of 34 shots to earn his third win of the season on Tuesday, and he is just the second rookie Washington goaltender to earn a point in at least five straight starts from the outset of his career, joining Jim Carey (6-0-1 in 1994-95) in achieving that distinction.

Vanecek owns a .944 save pct. in 5-on-5 play thus far in 2020-21, the fifth best mark in the league. On the season, he has a 2.70 GAA and a .918 save pct.

Ex-Cap Semyon Varlamov gets the net again for New York on Thursday after suffering his first loss of the season at the hands of his former team on Tuesday. Despite its depleted lineup, Washington teed up a season-high 72 shot attempts on Tuesday. The Caps eclipsed 30 shots on net for the third straight game in putting 37 pucks on Varlamov, also a season high.

Lifetime against the Capitals, Varlamov is 4-7-1 with a 2.76 GAA and a .923 save pct. in a dozen appearances.

All Lined Up - Here's how we believe the Capitals will look on Thursday night at Capital One Arena, and a reminder of how the Isles lined up on Tuesday. New York bench boss Barry Trotz was not pleased with his team after Tuesday's game, and he indicated that changes would be forthcoming, but we won't see those alterations until warmup before tonight's contest.

 

WASHINGTON

Forwards

13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson

73-Sheary, 77-Oshie, 14-Panik

62-Hagelin, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway

28-Carr, 23-Sgarbossa, 10-Sprong

Defensemen

4-Dillon, 74-Carlson

33-Chara, 2-Schultz

34-Siegenthaler, 57-van Riemsdyk

Goaltenders

41-Vanecek

31-Anderson

Out

6-Kempny (Achilles' tendon)

8-Ovechkin (on "unavailable due to Covid protocol" list)

9-Orlov (on "unavailable due to Covid protocol" list)

20-Eller (upper body)

30-Samsonov (on "unavailable due to Covid protocol" list)

92-Kuznetsov (on "unavailable due to Covid protocol" list)

Extras

3-Jensen

 

NEW YORK

Forwards

27-Lee, 13-Barzal, 7-Eberle

20-Bellows, 29-Nelson, 12-Bailey

47-Komarov, 44-Pageau, 32-Johnston

17-Martin, 53-Cizikas, 15-Clutterbuck

Defensemen

3-Pelech, 6-Pulock

2-Leddy, 24-Mayfield

4-Greene, 8-Dobson

Goaltenders

40-Varlamov

35-Schneider

30-Sorokin

Injured

18-Beauvillier (lower body)

Extras

25-Aho

28-Dal Colle

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