When the Capitals returned to the ice in Washington on Wednesday for their first practice after a four-game trip across Canada, one particularly valuable part of the lineup was absent.
Leading scorer Alex Ovechkin missed practice with what the team will only describe as an upper-body injury, and he is questionable to play Friday when the Capitals visit the Philadelphia Flyers. That means that in addition to looking for ways to improve its defensive acumen, Washington may need to make up for the lack of the single greatest driving force in its offense.
“He’s got what, 30 percent of our team’s goals? Any time you miss a guy like that, it’s pretty detrimental,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “If he does miss some time, we’re going to have to find ways to spread the puck around. Guys are going to have to shoot a little bit more and we’re going to have to find ways to score, because he’s the one that’s been doing most of our scoring.”
Ovechkin has recorded 10 of Washington’s 32 goals through the first 12 games of the season and was only passed by St. Louis’s Alexander Steen for the league lead in goals Tuesday night. If counting Ovechkin’s five assists as well, he has had a hand in 46.9 percent of the Capitals’ goals this year.
It is unclear how much time Ovechkin might miss. Over the course of his career, the Capitals’ star winger has sat out only 12 games because of injury.
Coach Adam Oates declined to give details about Ovechkin’s health, except to say that he did not suffer a concussion and that the injury occurred in the first period of Washington’s 3-2 loss at the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. Ovechkin skated 19 minutes 49 seconds in that contest, with his final shift coming as time expired in regulation. But something seemed amiss as the 28-year-old was held scoreless and fired a season-low three shots on net.
Head athletic trainer Greg Smith “told me he was a little sore. I think as the game went along, probably a little sorer,” Oates said. “We’ll see how he is” Thursday.
The loss of Ovechkin’s offensive production would surely be damaging to Washington’s offensive efforts, but just the lack of his presence on the ice makes the team that much easier to defend against. Ovechkin typically draws a double-team defensive focus at even strength and dictates coverage on the power play. Without those threats, the Capitals are much easier to contain.
While there is no good time for Ovechkin to be injured, this comes at an inopportune juncture for the Capitals. The offense has helped overcome defensive inconsistencies throughout the first month of the season, and the team will be without another veteran defenseman for at least the first three weeks of November. John Erskine was placed on long-term injured reserve retroactive to Oct. 26 on Wednesday and is not eligible to return to the lineup until Nov. 20 against Pittsburgh.
Erskine, 33, sat out the defeat in Vancouver after playing in the three previous contests, in which he was visibly limited in his skating stride. The veteran defenseman missed four games from Oct. 12-19 as well, and Oates explained that the upper-body injury Erskine has been contending with is partially compensation due to his recovery from offseason surgery on his left knee.
In conjunction with that move, Washington recalled defenseman Dmitry Orlov and forward Michael Latta from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.
Orlov, 22, is in the final year of his entry-level contract and is vying to finally make the full-time jump to the NHL. He appeared in 60 games under Dale Hunter two years ago but a pair of concussions during the NHL lockout last season prevented him from making a significant impression on the current coaching staff.
“I want to try my best and hope I stay here a long time, whole season,” Orlov said. “Not think about going [to Hershey] again, just stay here, get my confidence and play every game.”
If Orlov makes his season debut Friday against the Flyers, he would be the 10th defenseman to suit up for Washington in the first 13 games of the season and the fifth in that group without a full NHL season on his resume. No matter who is or isn’t in the lineup Wednesday — whether another young defenseman or the reigning Hart Trophy winner — the Capitals must find a way to reinforce the basics of their game.
“We could say all the usual things of everybody’s got to do a little bit more, but we’ve got to play solid whether it’s with [Ovechkin] or without him,” Brouwer said. “We’ve got to find ways to keep them off the scoreboard and worry about our offense as a result of making sure we’re good in the D zone.”