ELMONT, N.Y. — The jerseys that the Washington Capitals wear for practice often tell a story.
The forwards are typically split in two, with half the group wearing red and half the group wearing white. When the players take the ice, before any drills get underway, the color a player is wearing can be the first hint that line changes are afoot; the three players on each line all normally wear the same color. On Thursday at UBS Arena, as the Capitals trickled out for practice, it quickly became evident Washington Coach Spencer Carbery had tweaked things yet again.
Less than 24 hours after a 5-1 drubbing by the New York Rangers — a loss that brought back Carbery’s season-long frustration with the Capitals’ lack of five-on-five scoring — center Connor McMichael was wearing white for Thursday’s practice, while his usual linemates, Anthony Mantha and Aliaksei Protas, donned red. The Protas-McMichael-Mantha line has been a consistent contributor for Washington over the past month, and Carbery hasn’t wanted to disrupt its reliable chemistry.
But in the wake of Wednesday’s loss, McMichael moved up to center Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, while Dylan Strome took McMichael’s vacated spot with Protas and Mantha.
“That’s something that I think we’ll start with [in Friday’s game] and see where it goes from there,” Carbery said. “Just trying to get a different look. We’ve been hesitant to do something like that because of taking away from the success of Mikes, Pro and Mo. But we feel like we may need to alter some things to try to help in some different areas.”
Carbery’s assessment of what McMichael will bring to his new top-line role was succinct: “Confidence. Speed. Playmaking ability.”
The last time Strome’s line with Ovechkin and Wilson produced an even-strength goal was Dec. 10, seven games ago. Even more striking: Per Natural Stat Trick, that line has been on the ice for eight five-on-five goals all season — only one more than the fourth line of Nic Dowd, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Beck Malenstyn.
Now, as the Capitals again seek a spark among their forwards, the 22-year-old McMichael will take a turn in the top spot on the lineup card Friday when Washington faces the New York Islanders.
“Just [looking for them to] control play,” Carbery said. “Being able to generate a little bit of chemistry, some [offensive]-zone shifts. Being able to read off one another, support one another. Be able to generate, whether it’s off the rush, whether it’s off forecheck pressure where we’re able to attack or [offensive]-zone sequences. Being able to have some sequences like that.”
A week after defenseman Ethan Bear first joined Washington to continue his rehab from shoulder surgery, with the expectation that a contract would be made official in the near future, Bear is now officially a Capital, having signed a two-year, $4.125 million contract that has a salary cap hit of $2.0625 million. Because Bear signed partway through the season, the first year of the contract is prorated, and Bear will be paid $1.375 million. He then will be paid $2.75 million next season.
Thursday’s session was the first full practice for the Capitals since Bear arrived; he has taken part in morning skates and optional practices, but because of the schedule, the full team had not been together for a regular practice in over a week. Bear skated on the right side of the second defensive pair, alongside Rasmus Sandin.
Trevor van Riemsdyk, who has played with Sandin for much of this season, appeared to be the player who would come out of the lineup when Bear goes in. Van Riemsdyk skated with Alex Alexeyev, who has been a healthy scratch for 14 consecutive games, while the first and third pairs — Martin Fehervary and John Carlson, and Joel Edmundson and Nick Jensen — remained unchanged.
Carbery didn’t fully commit to Bear making his season debut Friday, and Bear still needs clearance from doctors before he can play. But after a six-month recovery process, he’s anxiously awaiting his chance.
“Everything feels good,” Bear said. “I’m healthy. I’m ready to roll. It’s any day now when I’m going to play, so we’ll just take it day by day. I feel good. I’m excited. Just ready for when I get that nod.”
Six months is a long time to be away from the game, but Bear said it went quickly, and his itch to play has only grown since he arrived in Washington last week.
“Now that it’s all settling in here, I’ve done everything I possibly could to be ready,” Bear said. “I’m not going to be second-guessing myself. I’m ready to play when I get that chance.”
Max Pacioretty inching closer
For several weeks, Carbery has been saying forward Max Pacioretty is “real close” to playing. On Thursday, Pacioretty skated on a regular line during practice for the first time, joining Evgeny Kuznetsov and Matthew Phillips. As he did with Bear, Carbery didn’t commit to Pacioretty playing Friday, but the forward is expected to play before the week is over.
“I would expect him to play one of the next two games, barring anything minor setback-wise,” Carbery said. “Got him into, not necessarily that he’ll play tomorrow, but just to get him into a line, some more reps. Get him even more comfortable so that if he does in fact go tomorrow, try to get him into those situations as much as possible.”
Pacioretty hasn’t played in nearly a year after suffering his second Achilles’ tendon tear in the span of five months last January. Carbery attempted to temper expectations, given Pacioretty’s lengthy absence and the time it will take to shake off the rust, but there’s no denying that the Capitals are eagerly anticipating adding a proven goal scorer to their lineup.
“We’re looking for scoring any way we can find it five-on-five,” Carbery said. “He has proven in the past that he’s been able to contribute in that department. He will be a welcomed addition.”