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For Capitals' Peter Laviolette, Thursday is the start of a new challenge in just about every way pos

For Capitals' Peter Laviolette, Thursday is the start of a new challenge in just about every way pos

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Capitals Training Camp Hockey

Washington’s Peter Laviolette (center left) will coach his first game with the Capitals on Thursday night when they take on the Buffalo Sabres. In addition to installing a new system for the team, Laviolette is working through changes in the NHL brought on by COVID-19.

WASHINGTON — When Peter Laviolette walks into Buffalo’s KeyBank Center on Thursday night, it will be his first time behind the bench during the coronavirus pandemic. There won’t be any fans in the stands, no energy that builds from the moment the doors open to puck drop to the final blare of the horn.

It will be a new experience for Laviolette, but it won’t be his only first. Thursday also is the start of a new chapter for the Washington Capitals, with Laviolette coaching his first game for the team. The 56-game pandemic-shortened schedule is just one of many changes, and the longtime NHL coach is in the middle of planning for a season filled with uncertainty.

“I guess we’re prepared for anything,” he said Tuesday during an interview with The Washington Post. “Anything could happen.”

Even the way Laviolette interacts with players in the team’s practice facility has changed. Instead of being able to talk to all 23 in one room when going over video, the team has to head to three separate areas — the video room, the coaches’ office and the dressing room — to go over video streamed to all three rooms. It’s not an ideal situation for a team learning a new coach’s system.

“I think it loses a bit of its pop . . . when you try to go over things,” Laviolette said. “And then I’m thinking of things as I’m running this meeting — I’m using this laser, and I’m wondering if they can see the laser on the camera that is being projected onto the TV and I’m talking about a different board.”

Those adjustments eventually became routine, and Laviolette knows he isn’t alone in this struggle. But it’s amplified with his recent arrival and a training camp that was shortened to 10 days. Add a schedule that has each team in the newly formed East Division playing one another eight times, and you can expect tempers to flare early and often.

“It’s going to be intense, and I think it’s going to be hard for everybody,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “ . . . Preparation will probably be a little more like a playoff series because you prep for the game, then you make some adjustments and then you [often] will get to prep again [to face] the same team, so you are doing a lot of the same stuff. It is going to be interesting how everyone handles it.”

The Capitals open the season with back-to-back games at the Sabres, then travel to Pittsburgh for two games against the rival Penguins before their home opener Jan. 22 — against Buffalo again. Local restrictions on public gatherings will prevent Washington from allowing fans at Capital One Arena, and MacLellan does not expect that to change in the near future.

“I don’t anticipate that happening for a while, depending on how the vaccine here evolves for some people and the progress and the virus [affecting] everybody,” he said. “I think it is up to local areas, but I think they toned it back in the NHL. . . . I don’t have an answer. I think as soon as it calms down, they want to have fans back in the building.”

Laviolette isn’t sure what to expect from coaching in an arena without fans; his most recent experience was the packed and rowdy rink he became accustomed to during 5½ seasons with the Nashville Predators. Most of his players and assistants experienced the 2020 postseason, held without fans in the NHL’s bubble hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, but the Predators let Laviolette go in January, so that is just one more adjustment for him to make.

“That’s all I know. . . . It’s not like that in an empty rink? I was told it was awesome,” he quipped.

Laviolette has named Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek his goaltending tandem, but there isn’t a plan for how many games each will play. Instead, it will be performance-based early on, and Laviolette is expecting both netminders to fight for playing time.

“Once you get a body of work underneath you, you can evaluate and then make determinations from there,” Laviolette said. “I think we’ve got to play some games before it goes too far down that road. We’ve got to let the guys play and see where they’re at and perform and then make decisions.”

Samsonov, 23, has just 26 games of NHL experience — all gained last season while backing up Braden Holtby — and Vanecek, 25, has yet to make his NHL debut.

“The dream coming closer and closer,” Vanecek said of making the team after spending the past five seasons in the minors. “I need to do the second step now and be good in the goal.”

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin is about to start the final year of his 13-year, $124 million contract. Last week, the Capitals’ captain said he wouldn’t be concerned if the regular season begins without a new deal; as of Tuesday, that seems to be the case for the team, too.

“It’s right where it was a week ago,” MacLellan said of contract negotiations. “We want him to finish here, and I think he wants to finish here, too. I think both sides will accomplish that eventually.”

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