Capitals forward Jakub Vrana will take the ice with Chandler Stephenson on Monday just as they have many times before as professionals.
It’s going to feel much different this time.
Vrana and Stephenson were teammates in the American Hockey League with the Capitals affiliate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, for three seasons before spending all or part of the last four seasons together in Washington.
They will play as opponents for the first time since Stephenson was traded to the Golden Knights in December when the teams meet Monday in a 3 p.m. game at T-Mobile Arena.
“We’ve had great memories together just being teammates for so long,” Vrana said Sunday after practice. “It will be weird to see him in a different jersey, but it is what it is. I’m happy for him that he got an opportunity and he’s doing so well with it. It’s going to be fun.”
Stephenson, who was often buried on the depth chart in Washington, has thrived in an expanded role with the Knights. He averaged 11:50 of ice time in 24 games with the Capitals this year and is at 15:56 through 30 games in Las Vegas. He has also played a dramatically increased role on special teams.
The 25-year-old has eight goals and 18 points in 30 games after scoring 14 goals in 155 games over the last two-plus seasons with the Capitals, where he was part of the Stanley Cup championship team in 2018.
“I get to play on a great line that makes my life easy,” said Stephenson, who has been playing in the top six before moving back to the third line with the return of William Karlsson. “That’s been helpful, but just earning the trust of the coaches and getting a little more opportunity, the change of scenery. Everything was new and fresh. That helps a lot, too.”
His former teammates aren’t surprised by his success.
“I think we all expected this,” Vrana said, “He’s a great player. He’s always been so skilled. He’s got a really good shot once he uses it. I know he would rather pass, but I think if he uses his shot more he would score way more goals. He’s a great two-way center, strong on the faceoff, good in the defensive zone. I’ve been playing with him for a few years so I know what he can do.”
Braden Holtby, who will get the start in net on Monday, said Stephenson always showed signs he was capable of more.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit,” Holtby said. “He’s an outstanding player and he’s getting the chance to show it. He’s one of the guys we’re going to have to focus on (Monday). He’s showing that he’s one of the best young two-way forwards out there. He’s doing really good things for them.”
Forward Tom Wilson agreed.
“He’s one of those players where when you see him get moved and you almost know he’s going to have a successful career,” Wilson said. “We always knew he had the ability to do that. He’s one of those guys you look at and see he’s a real smart player, he’s got all the tools and with ice time and responsibility, he’s only going to play better and he has.
“Plus, he’s a guy that gets along with every single teammate and everyone he crosses paths with. He leaves a good impression on everyone. He’s a very good friend of mine. It’s always sad to see a guy like that leave, but it’s a business and I think Vegas got a really good player and an even better person. He’s showing that for sure.”
Capitals coach Todd Reirden joked the team is rooting for Stephenson to do well with his new team, just not on Monday.
“I think he’s done really well with his opportunity,” Reirden said. “He’s been used in a top-six role in Vegas and that’s something where with us he wasn’t able to get to that spot and if he was, it was inconsistent. We feel like our top six is at the top of the league. We’re certainly happy for him having that opportunity. He was part of our family. He’s just a good person and will always be remembered as a Stanley Cup winner with us.”
That won’t make Stephenson immune from a little razzing during Monday’s game even though he’s expected to take Vrana and some of his ex-teammates out to dinner on Sunday.
“We chirped each other all the time even as teammates, so it will be hilarious to see what happens out there,” Vrana said. “It will be a fun game.”
Stephenson believes things will settle down after the first shift.
“I think it will all be in good fun,” he said. “I don’t think it will be too serious. Obviously some guys might say more than others, but I think it will all be in good fun. It’s going to be different and probably weird. I assume the nerves will calm a bit and we’ll just play hockey.
“I’ve never gone through anything like that, but at the same time it will be nice to see the guys and kind of catch up a bit. But it’s still a game and we’re just trying to push here to get as many points as we can so that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Who: Capitals at Golden Knights
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T Sports Net (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -135, total 6½ (under -115)