It’s Game Time!

Posted October 13, 2021

(Caps Outsider)

After a busy preseason, the Capitals will head into opening night without Nicklas Backstrom, instead being forced to rely on the skills of rookie forwards Connor McMichael and Hendrix Lapierre.

Prior to the preseason stint, Backstrom had been dealing with a hip injury and was not on the ice for training camp or any of the preseason games. The Caps announced on Tuesday that Backstom would be placed on the long-term injury list, meaning he will be out for at least the first ten games of the season. Part of the moves made in response by the Caps included recalling McMichael as well as Beck Malenstyn from the Hershey Bears.

“There’s a process you go through…I spoke with [Backstrom] today and he is improving,” said head coach Peter Laviolette when asked about Backstrom in a press conference on Monday.

Due to the rules regarding the long-term injured reserve, the earliest game Backstrom could be back for would be the Caps’ matchup against the Flyers on November 6.

As for Ovechkin, his availability for opening night is questionable following a lower-body injury suffered during a hit made in last Friday’s preseason game against the Flyers, but it appears he’ll be playing.

Fortunately, Ovi was on the ice for Tuesday’s optional practice where he was seen skating around and taking some practice shots.

“It’s certainly a positive sign that he’s out there,” said Laviolette in a press conference on Tuesday.

While it is uncertain whether Ovi will make an appearance in Wednesday’s opening game, it doesn’t seem that there is any real concern regarding the great eight as his injury is listed as day-to-day.

The loss of two top line players, especially those with the experience, skill and connection that Ovi and Backstrom have will certainly put a dent in the Caps offensively. However, Laviolette hopes to make up for those key losses and bolster the top lines with two young rookies coming off an impressive training camp and preseason campaign.

McMichael (age 20), the Capitals’ first round draft pick in 2019, is projected to fill in for Ovechkin at left wing on the Caps top line along with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, should Laviolette decide to keep Ovi out for precautionary reasons.

When asked during a press conference on Monday about the chance to start on opening night, McMichael replied, “It’s kind of just a waiting game. Obviously I’d like to be on [the opening night roster]. It’s kind of out of my control now…I’m excited to see what the [decision] is.”

During the previous season McMichael led the Hershey Bears in goals (14) and points (27). He also finished preseason tied for fifth among rookies in points (5), as noted in the Caps press release.

Also tied with McMichael was Capitals’ 2020 first round pick Lapierre (age 19) who ranked eighth in the QMJHL in points per game (1.48) in 2020-21, recording 31 points (8g, 23a) in 21 games with Chicoutimi, also noted in the Caps press release.

Lapierre is set to fill in for Backstrom and has been practicing at center on the third line alongside Conor Sheary and T.J. Oshie.

“I said at the beginning of camp that I was going to be ready in whatever situation so right now I’m practicing with Oshie and [Sheary], they’re two amazing players so it’s really fun, but I just want to make sure I’m ready each and every day and I’m playing good with those guys,” said Lapierre in a press conference on Monday.

Lapierre expressed that practicing alongside Sheary and Oshie has been helpful to his game and that he has been able to talk to both players about improving his craft.

“I consider myself extremely lucky to have those wingers right now on my line and I feel like it can really really help me not only on the ice but off the ice too,” said Lapierre in Monday’s press conference.

For the Caps, it is pivotal that both McMichael and Lapierre fit in well and play up to their potential in order to generate offensive productivity and success not only on opening night but in the long term.

Playing on opening night will provide the rookies with good experience and also give Laviolette a feel for the lineups early in the season as the Caps try to adjust to the absence of star players and make an early statement at home.

The Capitals opening night game against the New York Rangers will start at 7:30 p.m. on TNT.