In addition to the usual preparations during a three-day stretch between games, the Washington Capitals also readied their contingency plans in case they must move forward this week without top defenseman Mike Green.
It’s a routine the team has grown quite familiar with in recent years as Green missed a combined 80 regular season games during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons with various injuries. With Green questionable for Thursday’s contest against the New Jersey Devils — and possibly longer — because of a lower-body injury, the Capitals are bracing to be without him again.
“It doesn’t really matter how many times you’ve done it before, it’s never easy to play those games,” Karl Alzner said of playing without Green in the lineup. “He’s definitely our best defenseman, and any time you lose one of your best players it hurts a lot, puts a little more pressure on the guys to try and perform up to that level, and sometimes you try and do a little bit too much. So having that guy out there kind of calms everybody down, anytime he’s out it definitely — the team isn’t as good.”
Green, 27, left the Capitals’ 4-3 win over Tampa Bay on Feb. 14 late in the third period after making an unsuccessful attempt to chase down Nate Thompson on a breakaway. He appeared to be laboring in his stride and headed to the dressing room with less than three minutes remaining in regulation. He hasn’t taken part in a full on-ice workout since that game and sat out Washington’s loss to the Rangers on Sunday.
On Wednesday morning, Green skated lightly in full gear for about a half hour prior to the team’s regular practice and stayed out for 10 more minutes with his teammates. He didn’t try to push himself at full speed, though.
“I’m not reading too much into it,” Coach Adam Oates said, adding that Green would be re-evaluated Thursday morning. “He said he could do everything except he didn’t want to be explosive and set himself back. But he said he felt good with everything he did.”
The Capitals, already struggling with a 5-9-1 record and sitting last in the Eastern Conference, lose an element of their game without Green. No defensemen in the lineup is better equipped to join the rush, quarterback the power play from the point or serve as a one-man breakout unit. He’s also Washington’s ice-time leader; through the first 14 games of the year he averaged a career-high 26 minutes 33 seconds per contest.
John Carlson and Tomas Kundratek played season highs of 26:15 and 23:25, respectively, against the Rangers as they shouldered some of those additional responsibilities. But neither one possesses Green’s consistent ability to move the puck up ice efficiently or commands utmost respect and attention of an opponent with a booming shot from the blue line the way the two-time Norris Trophy finalist does.
That said, they aren’t looking to alter their identity on the ice just because Green isn’t in the mix.
“I play my game,” Carlson said. “The only thing that really changes for me is I just get more power play. I play the penalty kill and I don't change my game five-on-five because he's out of the lineup.”
Oates has encouraged all of the defensemen to jump up in the play since training camp back in mid-January, and even those who might not do it with much regularity know they might need to do it just a little bit more to help spark the offense in Green’s absence.
“He doesn’t even have to think about it. He’s always jumping up in the play and trying to get the puck on net there,” John Erskine said. “Myself, I’ll try to jump up as much as I can, but I think we’ll miss that offensive punch.”
Over the course of his career, Green has missed time with two concussions and shoulder, knee, ankle, hip flexor and groin injuries. He missed 41 games last season when a lingering groin strain resulted in an abdominal tear and required sports hernia surgery. It was only after the lockout ended that the defenseman declared himself “100 percent” healthy from the nagging problem.
Including his three-game suspension in March, Washington has played 84 of the last 179 regular season games without Green. His teammates know his importance and the role he plays in their collective success, so they don’t want to see him push himself too quickly.
“He had an extended injury for trying to come back a little bit early last year. So he knows as well how bad of an idea it is to come back early if you're not 100 percent,” Troy Brouwer said. “We don't want that this year because of the shortened season as well. So we need him to rest, get ready and be 100 percent when he comes back, because there's no time to have him come back for a few games and out for a few games.”