A hockey season is an odyssey that starts in September with training camp and concludes in June when the Stanley Cup is hoisted by the last team standing. It’s a grind that chews up every player, to a certain degree, along the way.
The Washington Capitals had the distinct pleasure of raising the Cup in June 2018 after besting the Vegas Golden Knights four games to one. For an encore, the Caps were unfortunately bounced out of the first round in the 2019 playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes.
But the team realizes the importance of being prepared come playoff time and is determined to pace themselves accordingly while at the same time not snoozing on early regular season games.
“At the end of the day, it’s what you do in the playoffs that matters,” says Scott Arniel, who is in his second year as an assistant coach for the Capitals. “You have to play your best hockey come April, May and June.”
Ideally, teams want home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. That means winning as many early regular season games as possible to create distance between opponents. To achieve that, the players need to be ready coming out of the gate.
Teams that start slowly often have a tough time catching up with the rest of the league. For example, the Dallas Stars started 1-7-1 and now have to play catch-up.
“You can be knocked out of the playoffs by December 1 if you’re not up and running,” continues Arniel, whose primary duties include working with the wingers and the penalty kill.
The Capitals feels they are better prepared to start this year compared to last, when they had a short summer while the city gorged on Cup mania. If there was a silver lining to the early exit last playoffs, it was that players had more time to train and prepare for this season.
Early preparation involves consistency and focus – not only on hockey skills but also on everyday activities such as eating habits, gym and lifting schedules, and rest and rehabilitation during the players’ off hours. Defenseman Nick Jensen notes the importance of getting off to a good start, and how players’ personal habits play a big role in their performance.
“Exhibition games definitely help, but there’s nothing that can replicate the speed and skill of the game when the regular season starts,” he says. “It’s a long season, but these games at the beginning of the season are very important.”
To keep loose on game days, Jensen says he follows a light morning skate with a cold tub treatment, soft tissue massage and stretching. Players will often stick with the same routine, mainly out of comfort and sometimes out of superstition.
“The majority of players, if not all, will follow a pretty similar routine on game days,” Jensen adds.
The defenseman, who was traded to the Capitals from the Detroit Red Wings this February, has logged key minutes on the backline for Washington. His strong defensive play is a valued commodity.
“Whatever makes me feel good for that game, I tend to repeat over and over. It’s all about getting into that mindset on game day. We’re creatures of habit.”
Arniel, head coach Todd Reirden, and the rest of the coaching and training staff take great pains to ensure each player is individually cared for. During practices, Arniel will often work with the wingers at a separate part of the rink away from the centers and defensemen.
“We want to make sure our players are at their max,” he says.
A hockey lifer, Arniel knows the game just about as well as anyone. He played 11 seasons in the National Hockey League, mostly with the Winnipeg Jets and Buffalo Sabres, and continued playing for several seasons after that in other pro leagues. He switched to coaching and served as the head coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets for a year-and-a-half, and also as an assistant for five years with the New York Rangers under head coach Alain Vigneault.
The Capitals were a well-oiled machine when Arniel joined them after the Cup season, and he believes the team is geared for similar success this year. The Caps are off to a fast start, posting an 8-2-3 record and sitting in first place at of the end of October.
“We changed our team a bit and have some new pieces,” Arniel says. “We had the opportunity to build our strength back up, and the coaching staff is a lot more familiar with one another.”
Jensen says the team is hoping to treat fans to another long playoff run.
“The fans are amazing,” he says. “We have a lot of support from them. There are adjustment periods here and there, but it feels like I’ve been here for a while.”
Don’t miss nine home games this month, starting on November 1 against the Buffalo Sabres. For more information on the Washington Capitals’ current season, go to www.nhl.com/capitals.
Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC;, 202-628-3200; www.nhl.com/capitals