McMichael was able to ditch his costume for the real thing Sunday afternoon, when he made his NHL debut in the Capitals’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Capital One Arena.
The Capitals’ 2019 first-round draft pick was immediately inserted into a top-six role. The skilled 20-year-old forward played left wing on the second line alongside center Lars Eller and Richard Panik and finished with 9:54 of ice time.
While McMichael had a solid debut, Washington’s veterans ultimately allowed the depleted Capitals salvage a point. Buffalo’s Jack Eichel was the only player to convert in the shootout, spoiling a gritty effort by Washington goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who finished with 45 saves.
Washington (3-0-3) played without five key regulars, including its entire top forward line. Captain Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov remained on the covid-19 protocol-related absences list along with defenseman Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Ilya Samsonov, and Tom Wilson was out and remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered in Friday night’s win over Buffalo.
The holes in the lineup gave McMichael an opportunity to play, and he held his own in his first appearance, especially considering the challenging circumstances.
McMichael had only two full practices with the team before entering the lineup. The 6-foot, 183-pound youngster did not participate in training camp because he was playing for Team Canada as an assistant captain at the world junior championships in Edmonton. After he led the tournament hosts to the gold medal game with four goals and four assists in seven games, he flew home to Ontario for one night before traveling to the Washington area to complete a seven-day mandatory quarantine. He skated on his own during the Capitals’ season-opening road trip, then finally practiced with the team for the first time Thursday.
“[Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette] just told me to stay ready,” McMichael said. “Obviously, with guys going down, you never know what could happen. So just stay ready and work hard in practice, and we’ll see what the outcome is.”
In addition to McMichael, veteran defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk also made his Capitals debut Sunday after he was a healthy scratch for the first five games of the season. Van Riemsdyk played on the third pair alongside Jonas Siegenthaler in place of Nick Jensen, who was the odd man out.
Vanecek made his third straight start in net with Samsonov unavailable. Laviolette and his coaching staff felt the rookie deserved the opportunity after he played well Friday night. The decision preempted another Capitals debut; veteran goaltender Craig Anderson remained on the bench after he was called up to the active roster from the taxi squad Thursday to replace Samsonov.
Defenseman Justin Schultz gave Washington a 1-0 lead Sunday with his shot from the right point at 6:58 of the first period. It was Schultz’s first goal as a member of the Capitals. Center Nic Dowd provided the key screen in front of the net, blocking the sight of Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark. Heavy hitter Garnet Hathaway helped set up the play, landing a check on Buffalo’s Taylor Hall in the left corner that led to the puck being wrapped around to Schultz at the right point.
Colin Miller tied the score at 1 with 9:53 left in the second period with his point shot on the power play. Van Riemsdyk had lost his stick on the penalty kill, which essentially gave Buffalo a five-on-three opportunity.
T.J. Oshie answered quickly for Washington, deflection Schultz’s point shot in front 1:44 after Miller’s goal. But then the Sabres answered only 1:13 later with Victor Olofsson’s power-play goal from the right circle.
The flurry of goals meant Washington entered the third period tied for the fifth straight game. Eric Staal scored on a one-timer at 7:24 of the third period, Buffalo’s third power-play goal of the afternoon. Nicklas Backstrom answered 2:04 later with a crafty shot from nearly behind the goal line on the power play to tie the score at 3 with 10:32 left. The goal was Backstrom’s team-leading fourth in six games to start the season.
Buffalo had a chance to regain the lead when Hall took a penalty shot with 9:27 to play, but his try rang off the post, and the Capitals went to overtime for a fourth consecutive game for the first time since 2011.