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Capitals get more rest than they could ever want before playoffs start Thursday

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Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Capitals coach Adam Oates and his staff figured the turnaround between their team's last regular-season game Saturday night and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs would be a quick one.

And so everyone convened at Kettler Iceplex in Arlington on Sunday while the players took a much-needed day off. Preparations for the first-round series with the New York Rangers had already begun. Then the Caps learned late Sunday that the series won't actually start until Thursday night. For the first time since the lockout-shortened NHL season began Jan. 19, Washington would have four days off between games.

That's usually not an ideal scenario, especially for a team that is a scorching 15-2-2 since March 21. Players always want to keep going when wins are piling up. But there's no question the Caps could also use a little break after a 48-game season where it seemed like they had a game every other night for three consecutive months.

"The tough thing is the schedule's been so grueling, so it almost feels like a regular playoff," Oates said. "In a sense, every team's been in the playoffs for a month."

Indeed, Washington was 10 points back in the Southeast Division as recently as March 13. By early April, it was back in first place and by last Tuesday, it had secured the division title and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a swift ascent -- one that allowed the Caps to play two essentially meaningless games last week with little consequence if they lost.

"You enjoy it. You get some rest," forward Troy Brouwer said. "You get to study your opponents a little bit more. And you get to flow into the playoffs rather than just be thrown into them."

It won't hurt that injured forwards Joel Ward (left knee) and Brooks Laich (sports hernia surgery) get extra time to recover. Ward was injured on April 7 after taking a shot off his left knee. He donned a white practice jersey for the first time on Monday and is hopeful he can play on Thursday in Game 1 against New York. Laich, who had surgery in mid-April, has not yet begun skating and is unlikely to play in this series. The Caps hope he could play in the second round if they make it past the Rangers.

"Kind of odd. Originally I thought we were starting Tuesday and then you think, well, maybe Wednesday," forward Matt Hendricks said. "It's a lot of days to sit around and practice. But we've got guys with bumps and bruises, so it's a good time to heal and it's a good time to get the rest back that we need."

The only other playoff series that begins on Thursday is Ottawa-Montreal. The other six series start either Tuesday or Wednesday. The Caps will also host the Rangers on Saturday afternoon. The following two games are in New York on Monday and May 8. If necessary, Game 5 will be on May 10 in Washington, with Game 6 on May 12 at Madison Square Garden. If needed, the two teams would meet the very next night for Game 7 at Verizon Center on May 13 in a back-to-back scenario. They'll need all the rest they can get if the series goes that far.

"When we have a day off, it's usually pretty nice," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "It's weird, though, because we haven't really had three or four days off before a game all season. It's a little strange but it's okay. We had a nice light practice today and I'm sure we'll start slowly ramping up."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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