WASHINGTON, D.C. — If Martin Erat left anything behind upon his hasty exit from the nation’s capital, he won’t have to wait long to reclaim it. Three days after arriving in Phoenix following a trade that sent defenseman Rusty Klesla, prospect Chris Brown and a 2015 fourth-round draft pick to the Capitals, Erat is returning to the place he couldn’t wait to leave.
"Hockey is strange in those situations. It always happens," said the newest Coyote, who will face the Caps in a Phoenix jersey on Saturday at Verizon Center. "I was looking maybe to play there next year, but it’s coming pretty fast, and maybe that’s the best way to do it."
Reunions with former teammates, former teams and former cities are common in the business-oriented NHL, but for the Coyotes, this angle is generally more relevant when the team heads to western Canada, where a number of the players grew up and/or played.
Coyotes at Capitals
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Records: Phoenix 29-23-11; Washington 29-25-10
Scouting the Capitals: Like Phoenix, Washington is out of playoff position, having gone just 4-2-4 in its past 10 games. The Caps’ power play is lethal at 23 percent (second in the NHL), but the penalty-killing unit has been subpar (80.5 percent, 23rd) and Washington had allowed more goals (195) than all but four teams entering Friday’s play. Alex Ovechkin leads the Caps with 44 goals and 67 points, while center Nicklas Backstrom tops the club with 50 assists. Washington is the third-most penalized team in the league, averaging of 12.9 minutes per game.
This season, Washington carries the same weight. The Coyotes signed former Capital Mike Ribeiro in the offseason, they signed former Capital Jeff Halpern early in the season, and then they acquired Erat at the trade deadline.
Energy shouldn’t be a problem for the Coyotes, who are chasing a playoff spot in the Western Conference and got a shot in the arm with the addition of Erat, while their closest competitors were largely idle or selling off pieces. But the chance to play an old team and send a message is another source of motivation.
"You get into it a little bit quicker when it’s your old team," said Ribeiro, who had plenty of jump when he posted two assists on Thursday against another of his former clubs, Montreal. "It still means something. Even if you’re not there long it’s special to go back and see the people you met, see the places you used to go and yeah, show them what you’ve got."
For Erat, Washington was a frustrating stop in his career after he requested and was eventually granted a trade from Nashville. He was relegated to the fourth line earlier this season and never seemed to fit into coach Adam Oates’ plans. He had one goal and 23 assists before coming to Phoenix.
"It was just the wrong place and the wrong time," he said. "I can’t think about it for too long. This is my new team, and I just want to help this team get to the playoffs."
Although he played just 48 games with Washington in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Ribeiro remembers his time with the Caps fondly.
"Playing in D.C. was a great experience," said Ribeiro, who had 49 points in 48 games with the Caps. "You have the nation’s government there, I had a chance to visit all of the museums and I played well, too, so it’s a time I will always remember."
It didn’t hurt that Ribeiro got a chance to play with top-end talent in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, either.
"It was easier to get points, that’s for sure," he said, laughing.
For Halpern, playing in DC is both a homecoming and a chance to face his longtime club. He grew up near Potomac, Md. and played seven seasons with the Caps. He wasn’t drafted by an NHL club, but his strong two-way play at Princeton caught the attention of Caps GM George McPhee, who invited him to skate with their prospects and eventually offered Halpern a contract.
"I had grown up a Caps fan anyway, so it was kind of a dream come true," Halpern said. "Washington will always be home for me."
Coach Dave Tippett is looking forward to this road trip for a different reason. With the addition of Erat, Tippett believes a road trip can force faster bonding with teammates because they spend so much time together. But if homecomings and reunions provide extra motivation, he’s all for it because the Coyotes are facing a challenging stretch run with 11 road dates in their final 19 games.
"Washington and Tampa are in hard playoff chases, and Boston’s a real top team," Tippett said, referring to three of this trip’s four opponents. "We’re going to have to play a real disciplined, hard, road style if we’re going to win."