Opening night of the 2021-22 season arrives for the Capitals and the Rangers tonight at Capital One Arena, the beginning of what we all hope will be a full 82-game season. Buildings will be filled with fans once again, and although things are still different from 19 months ago when Washington last played to a full capacity crowd, there is much more of a sense of normalcy for this season than last.
"I'm so excited for fans to be back in the building," says Washington winger Garnet Hathaway. "It's going to be a lot different than last year, just with the protocol we have when we get on the road and being able to see a city and getting outside, and seeing friends and family in different cities, and having friends and family at the games. To be able to share the experience of being in the League with those people - the people that helped to get you here - is really special and I'm really looking forward to that."
Just having a full training camp with a handful of exhibition games was a big plus for players around the League as they prepared for the upcoming campaign after a shorter summer than they are accustomed to having.
"I thought training camp was good," says Caps center Nic Dowd. "At times training camp felt a little long, with those [three] road trips right in the middle, and the day of [game] flights are always challenging because we don't do them at all throughout the regular season. And it always takes a couple of games to get back to feeling good about your game.
"There's such a difference between practice and getting in those games, and your timing and stops and starts, and body position and being leaned on. I found that it finally clicked when we were playing Philly in that last [exhibition] game there.
"I'm excited to have a normal season here, and to have some more normalcy around the practice rink. It's nice to have fans back in the practice rink, and it'll be great to play in front of fans at Cap One again."
For the first time in three seasons, the NHL hopes to play a full 82-game slate in '21-22, and this also marks the first season of the League's "Original 32," with the addition of the Seattle Kraken to the Pacific Division. The Kraken started its NHL voyage on Tuesday night when it visited Vegas for its first ever regular season game, a battle of the NHL's two most recent expansion clubs. The Golden Knights prevailed, 4-3.
Although the Caps and Rangers are both members of the Metropolitan Division, the two longtime rivals will face one another only three times this season instead of the four games typically played between divisional foes prior to Seattle's entry into the circuit. The Caps will also play only three games against New Jersey this season.
Driver 8 - Caps captain Alex Ovechkin suffered a lower body injury in the team's preseason finale against Philly last Friday, an ailment that caused him to miss team practices on Sunday and Monday. Ovechkin returned to the ice for an optional practice twirl on Tuesday, and he was a full participant during today's morning skate.
Ovechkin was non-committal as to his presence in tonight's lineup, as was Caps coach Peter Laviolette. But it does seem more likely than not that No. 8 will suit up for tonight's opener.
"Obviously it was great to see him out there," says Laviolette. "There was full participation. Now we go back, and we check with the medical department and we see where everything is at."
Ovechkin is getting set to start his 17th NHL season in 2021-22, and he has yet to miss a season opener.
"I would not be surprised if he is back for game one," said Caps center Lars Eller on Sunday. "For some reason, he never seems to be out for long. Whatever he has been dealing with, I know he really wants to [play]. He does not like to miss games; he does not want to take a game off. He wants to play. If there is any chance he can, he will be out there and I hope he will be."
Capital Youth - Across the spectrum of the opening night rosters of all 32 NHL teams, the Caps are the third oldest team in the League, with an average age of 29.34. Both the New York Islanders (29.65) and the Dallas Stars (29.49) are a shade older, while the Columbus Blue Jackets (25.71) hold the distinction of being the youngest team in the circuit.
But Washington's roster features seven players aged 25 or younger, six of whom were Capitals draft choices. Four rookies - defenseman Martin Fehervary and forwards Hendrix Lapierre, Beck Malenstyn and Connor McMichael - cracked the Caps' opening night roster.
"Obviously McMIchael and Lappy, they're both talented and obviously Fehervary had the experience to play in the NHL," says Ovechkin. "It's a very good sign that we have young players coming up and they're good. They feel ready and they feel strong. In the practices it's fun to watch what they do with the puck, and it's pretty cool."
And tonight, the 19-year-old Lapierre - the youngest player on the Washington squad - will make his NHL debut against the Rangers at Capital One Arena. Lapierre was a preseason standout, tying for the team scoring lead with five points. He has spent the last month absorbing everything he can from the older players around him and he feels ready for the moment at hand.
"They've been here for a while, so they know they know a lot more than I do," says Lapierre. "So everything I can learn, I'll try to have my ears as open as I can and try to soak in as much information as I can so that I won't have to worry about those things later.
"I just worry about the things I can control, because if you waste energy with, 'Okay, maybe if … maybe if … maybe this will happen,' I think it's not good for you. It just burns you out. My job as a hockey player is to come to the rink, be ready to put in the work and be put in every situation, and I feel like right now I'm doing a good job and I just need to continue.
"I feel like every day I'm learning something new and I just want to keep doing that. I feel like I'm coming back to the hotel every day, and I'm like, 'Well today I learned this, that, and now I know how this works,' whether it's the system or whatever. It's just really special and I feel like I'm really privileged right now to be here."
Tonight, some 372 days after he was drafted in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft, Lapierre will man the middle of a line with veterans Conor Sheary and T.J. Oshie in his NHL debut. Last season, the Caps had four players make their NHL debut in an empty rink. When Lapierre takes the ice tonight, his parents, his grandparents, his brother, sister and girlfriend will all be in attendance at Capital One Arena.
"He reminds me a lot of me when I was younger," says Oshie, who made his own NHL debut 13 years and three days ago on opening night in St. Louis. "Maybe not the maturity side, but just then young excitement and freshness of everything he is learning at the NHL level for the first time. I think it's been exciting to watch him go through that process and watch him grow just in these last couple of weeks.
"I think it's fantastic to be able to play with him not only in his first game, but hopefully we get some chemistry and some games moving forward here. I think me and Shears should complement him pretty well and just work super hard and make the game a little simpler for him. It's fantastica that his family is able to go and watch the first one. I remember my family watching mine, and it's such a special moment for the Lapierre family."
Hard Times In New York Town - The Rangers have made the Stanley Cup playoffs once in the last four seasons, and that was a qualifying round appearance in the 2020 "bubble" playoffs in which the Blueshirts were summarily swept aside in three straight games at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes.
With an average age of 26.05, the Rangers are the League's third-youngest team and they've infused their lineup with a lot of high-end talent in recent seasons. But after falling short of a playoff berth last season, the Rangers did a fair amount of housecleaning. Gerard Gallant has replaced David Quinn as head coach and Chris Drury is the new GM, replacing Jeff Gorton.
On the ice, the Rangers also made sweeping changes over the offseason. The last time Washington and New York met was on May 5 in a fight-filled affair at Madison Square Garden, a game played less than six months ago. But looking at the 20 players the Blueshirts dressed that night, only 10 of them are expected to suit up for New York on Wednesday in Washington.
Those 10 holdovers include both Rangers goaltenders, defensemen Adam Fox and K'Andre Miller, and forwards Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, Kevin Rooney, Ryan Strome and Mika Zibanejad, who recently signed an eight-year contract extension to stay in Manhattan. Defensemen Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba and forwards Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider did not play in that May 5 game, but are key cogs on the New York squad.
Among the new faces in New York are defensemen Patrick Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi and forwards Sammy Blais, Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt and Ryan Reaves.
In The Nets - Washington went into last season expecting to lean heavily on goaltender Ilya Samsonov, but the Russian sophomore landed on the COVID protocol list after making just two starts. Samsonov ended up missing six weeks of NHL action, and the Caps were fortunate that rookie VItek Vanecek was up to the task of starting 17 of Washington's first 20 games last season, the first 17 games of his NHL career.
Samsonov landed on the COVID list yet again late in the regular season, though he did start each of Washington's final three playoff games, the first time in his NHL career that he started as many as three consecutive games. The Caps needed Samsonov at that juncture because Vanecek went down with a lower body injury in the first game of that series against Boston.
Both netminders are fully healthy now, but both are still young and relatively inexperienced; Washington's netminding tandem is the youngest in the League as the season gets underway.
"I just thought his camp, for me it was really good," says Laviolette of Vanecek. "He separated himself a little bit. For that, he gets the opportunity to start [on opening night], and after that the goalies will fight for the opportunity to play."
Vanecek posted a 21-10-4 record as an NHL rookie last season, with two shutouts, a 2.69 GAA and a .908 save pct.
"I feel like the biggest thing was I got to play so many games," says Vanecek of the experience he gained last season. "Every game I got a new experience. And just getting to the NHL, you're playing every second day or even back-to-back, and the experience came more quickly as you played more games."
Asked what area of his game he is working the hardest to improve, Vanecek mentioned his skating.
"It's skating,' he says. "If you get really good in the skating, you are on your feet and you can be with the play and you're skating with the play and not sliding. It's hard when you slide because you're always behind. So we're trying to skate as much as possible and [improve] skating."
Vanecek was 3-3-0 in six starts against the Rangers last season with a 2.70 GAA and an .899 save pct.
Wednesday's season opener is the front end of a set of back-to-backs for the Rangers, who face Dallas at home on Thursday night. New York has yet to name its starter for the opener against the Caps, but it will be either Alexandar Georgiev or Igor Shesterkin.
All Lined Up - Here's how we believe the Caps and Rangers will line up for Wednesday night's season opener:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
39-Mantha, 20-Eller, 10-Sprong
73-Sheary, 29-Lapierre, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 26-Dowd, 21-Hathaway
57-van Riemsdyk, 2-Schultz
19-Backstrom (hip, week-to-week)
13-Lafreniere, 93-Zibanejad, 20-Kreider
10-Panarin, 16-Strome, 24-Kakko
21-Goodrow, 72-Chytil, 29-Hunt
91-Blias, 17-Rooney, 75-Reaves