WASHINGTON, D.C. — Saturday marked the first time that Washington Capitals forward Connor McMichael experienced playoff hockey on its biggest stage. And when he stepped onto the ice at Capital One Arena to take a spot in the lineup for Game 3, he felt that different climate, that different intensity almost immediately.
The biggest thing he noticed to start was the energy level, which was easy to match as it sparked through the arena during the team’s pregame skate. After that, McMichael was fired up for a high-stakes showdown, and ready to make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut against the high-octane Florida Panthers.
“It was really cool. It was honestly more than I could have imagined,” McMichael said.
With Tom Wilson still day-to-day with a lower-body injury, McMichael, who had fallen into the role of an extra entering the postseason, got the call to draw in for Game 3 and provide a spark. Wilson’s absence not only left Washington without a top-6 forward and physical presence but key speed and skill up front. When it came to filling in for No. 43, McMichael knew he would have to bring a lot to the table.
“Obviously it’s well-known they’re a fast team. They show that every night and they got some really good players,” McMichael said. “So we’re kind of just sticking to our game, we’re staying physical, not letting them do what they want to do out there and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of containing their big guys.
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“I’ve gotten used to the pace of play in the NHL,” he continued. “The difference between playoffs and regular season isn’t as big as it was if I was just to jump in a playoff game. But like I said, the pace of play is up for sure and the physicality, so it’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
McMichael slotted in on the third line left wing alongside Lars Eller and Conor Sheary. He skated 7:59, showcasing his speed and helping to generate a couple of quality chances while making smart decisions in his own end.
“It was a lot different. The pace of play was up, the physicality. Obviously the energy in the building, it helped our team a lot and it gave us extra motivation to pull that one out,” No. 24 said of the game.
“I thought that Connor came in yesterday inside of a game that’s really fast and really physical and he gave us quality minutes for the time that we asked him,” head coach Laviolette said of No. 24, adding, “He has played a lot of games for us and counted on and quality minutes. “He jumped in yesterday, and I don’t think it was that big of a change for him… sometimes the atmosphere can be a lot for a young player. But we’re at home and the fans were behind us. And it was easy for him to jump in there and have a good game.”
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Beyond just his on-ice performance, McMichael helped provide a spark and outwork Florida en route to a dominant 6-1 victory in D.C. That win paid off big time and gave the Capitals the 2-1 series lead as McMichael gained more confidence and added more to his resume. And ultimately, he believes each game benefits his development as he continues to adapt to the highest level of hockey.
“I think I just got a lot of games under my belt now — I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confidence out there,” McMichael said. “I feel like there’s not as many nerves as there would be if I were to just jump in towards the end of the regular season right into playoffs. So I think I’ve gotten really comfortable with my game. I’m still getting better and better.”
Going forward, McMichael is excited to continue to not only build on his experience but learn from the veterans around him and take away as much as he can from his first NHL playoff run, whether it be on or off the ice.
“We have a veteran group and guys that have a lot of experience. Coming into the series we’re obviously labeled as the underdogs going against the President’s Trophy winner,” McMichael said. “Just shows that our team is ready to compete no matter who we’re playing and I think we’ve done a really good job so far.”