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Caps’ Ivan Miroshnichenko has gone from insurance policy to lineup staple

Caps’ Ivan Miroshnichenko has gone from insurance policy to lineup staple

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 3

CALGARY — On the same night winger T.J. Oshie played in his 1,000th NHL game, Washington Capitals rookie Ivan Miroshnichenko reached a different sort of milestone: Game No. 10.

For players on entry-level contracts, the jump from nine games to 10 is significant. If Miroshnichenko played nine games or fewer with the Capitals this season, his contract would slide, meaning that this season wouldn’t count as one of the three years on his entry-level contract. It’s not uncommon for rookies to get a nine-game taste of the NHL level before being sent back to junior hockey — or, in Miroshnichenko’s case, the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League — to save the year, if the player isn’t fully ready to play every day in the NHL.

But there was no doubt that Miroshnichenko, Washington’s first-round pick in the 2022 draft, would be in the lineup for his 10th game in Vancouver on Saturday. Initially recalled by the Capitals on Feb. 26 as an insurance policy as Washington’s injury list grew and the trade deadline approached, Miroshnichenko made his way into the lineup March 7 in Pittsburgh — and promptly scored his first goal.

Miroshnichenko hasn’t left the lineup since. He has two goals and an assist in six games, and as the Capitals conclude a five-game road trip in Calgary on Monday, the 20-year-old has been a clear standout the past week.

“He’s playing great, and that’s why he’s here now for that 10th game that we all know about, right? He’s earned it,” Washington Coach Spencer Carbery said after Saturday’s game. “This isn’t a courtesy, ‘Hey, young player, first-round pick, 20 years old, just get your feet wet in the National Hockey League.’ He is earning his ice time and opportunity with the way that he’s playing.”

Miroshnichenko played his first four games with the Capitals in late December before returning to Hershey. In his second NHL stint, the growth in his game has been evident on nearly every shift. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Miroshnichenko plays a heavy, physical game, and he hasn’t shied from the intensity of Washington’s recent stretch.

In Winnipeg on March 11, a game that was difficult for many Capitals as they struggled to handle the Jets’ speed and physicality, Miroshnichenko was one of the few players who appeared ready for the moment.

“I honestly thought Miro was probably our best player tonight overall,” Carbery said after the game. “I thought he had jump. He actually was the one that jumped out to me of being able to win some pucks. He looked like physically he could hang with that team from a physical standpoint. Was over top of the puck, won a few, got to the interior a couple times. I thought he was our bright spot.”

Miroshnichenko scored his second goal in Wednesday’s 7-2 loss in Edmonton, then set up winger Tom Wilson for the game-tying goal against the Canucks on Saturday. The play emphasized more than just what Miroshnichenko can do on the ice; it served as proof of how far Miroshnichenko’s ability to communicate has come during the past several months.

Against the Seattle Kraken on Thursday, Wilson, playing on a line with Miroshnichenko and center Dylan Strome, grabbed the iPad on the bench to show Miroshnichenko that he’d been in position to receive a pass at the back post for what could’ve been a tap-in goal. Two nights later, Wilson was again on the back post, and this time, Miroshnichenko found him with a no-look backhand feed.

“It’s been fun to play with him,” Wilson said Saturday. “He’s got a ton of potential, made an amazing play. You can tell he’s a smart player. As he gets more comfortable, he’s making really good plays and good reads. I kind of showed him something on the iPad in Seattle, and then he made sure that he passed it to the back door tonight. We were having some fun out there. He’s definitely coming out of his shell a little bit.”

Through a combination of watching movies with subtitles and working with a tutor, Miroshnichenko is making a concerted effort to learn English. It makes his life in North America easier off the ice, of course, but it’s also contributing to his increased comfort level on the ice.

“It helps me a lot to learn English and communicate better with my partners,” Miroshnichenko said Sunday, using defenseman Alex Alexeyev as an interpreter. “Those moments are pretty critical on the ice and off the ice, so that helps a lot.”

“It makes a massive difference,” Carbery added. “To be able to show him things, he asks questions now on the bench, after games, at practice. Even communicating with him on little drills out there [at practice Sunday]. It makes such a difference for a young player, too. … For him to be able to communicate and ask and talk to his teammates and just even have those simple conversations that we take for granted, it’s, I think, huge for his development. And then being able to [grasp] the X’s and O’s part of it and really understand what we’re trying to ask him to do from a habits standpoint, it makes a big difference.”

As the Capitals continue their push toward a playoff spot, the play of young players such as Miroshnichenko has been key. And as Miroshnichenko gets more comfortable on the ice and with the language, his confidence is growing at a crucial time for Washington.

“I’m just getting some minutes to play, and it’s giving me extra confidence,” Miroshnichenko said. “Support from my teammates. It’s all combined together. I think it’s just great for me.”

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