'Saucer-eyed': Caps, others count on rookies in NHL playoffs

HOWARD FENDRICH (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -- The Washington Capitals have never used more rookies during a single postseason than the half-dozen who helped Alex Ovechkin and Co. reach the Eastern Conference final.

They're contributing in various ways, including with secondary scoring and a freedom from the past playoff failures that became a burden for Capitals veterans.

''Man, they gave us a big boost with their energy and enthusiasm,'' said Matt Niskanen, a defenseman in his 11th NHL season. ''It's infectious.''

It's part of a league-wide trend, too: The 50 rookie skaters in these playoffs are the most since teams used 54 in 2005-06. That could be a reflection of teams having greater trust in young players arriving from junior hockey or college, or the need to stock rosters with cheap talent as a greater percentage of the salary cap is devoted to the elite.

''The way you build your hockey teams, those kids get a chance to play all season long. They get put in positions where they can succeed,'' Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. ''Over the last 10 or 15 years, they're more prepared.''

The Capitals advanced to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in a series beginning Friday night by using five rookies during a clinching 2-1 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. One of the fresh faces, Nathan Walker, assisted on a goal.

In Washington's Game 5 win over Pittsburgh, another rookie, right wing Jakub Vrana, was bumped from the third line to the top one and delivered an assist on the tying score before putting the go-ahead goal in the net. And to think: Vrana played a tad under seven minutes in Washington's opening playoff game, then was a healthy scratch for the second. Played every game since, though.

''I got an opportunity and I was ready,'' said Vrana, a 22-year-old from the Czech Republic. ''I didn't get a whole lot of minutes at the beginning, but even if I get eight minutes, I still go out there and do my best and try to make those eight minutes count.''

Similarly, defenseman Christian Djoos sat out Washington's first two games but played in the other 10.

Vrana and Djoos were expected to appear in Game 1 at Tampa Bay, perhaps joined by forwards Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd, who skated together on the third line at practice Wednesday. Walker and another rookie who faced Pittsburgh, Shane Gersich, are also part of the group that matched the franchise record of six playoff rookies set in 1989-90.

''There's two kinds of things that happen with young guys. They're naive and just play and have a lot of fun and it doesn't bother 'em. ... There's other ones that get the starry-eyed, saucer-eyed (look) and they have to sort of work through that,'' Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ''Early in the Columbus series, (Vrana) had a little bit of those saucer eyes. And then he sort of grew out of it.''

The Lightning's trio of rookies combined for 12 playoff points through two rounds: Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. Cirelli has played a key defensive center role after getting into just 18 regular-season games.

There are fewer youngsters in the Western Conference final.

Alex Tuch, who turned 22 on Thursday, has four goals and three assists as the sole postseason rookie for the Golden Knights. Their opponent, Winnipeg, has three rookies, but only one has logged regular playing time - left wing Kyle Connor broke out with two goals and an assist in Game 5 of the second round against Nashville, then had two assists in the Jets' 5-1 victory over the Predators in Game 7 on Thursday night.

Back in 2013-14, his first full season as an NHL coach, Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper used nine rookies in the playoffs, a total no team has eclipsed since.

That Lightning club was swept in the first round.

''I don't think we were necessarily prepared for it,'' said Tyler Johnson, one of four members of that precocious crop who also has appeared in the playoffs for Tampa Bay this time around. ''We didn't know what to expect.''

That's the thing about newcomers, of course. They don't know how they'll react to being in the faster, more physical, higher-quality, higher-pressure playoffs.

Nor do coaches or teammates.

''There's a little bit of the enthusiasm of the youth, something about the young guys. They've always got the smile on. Sometimes they're funny. Sometimes they're naive,'' Trotz said. ''Sometimes they just sort of need a little bit of tightening from their peers or their coach.''

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno, AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, and AP freelancer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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For more NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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