Through the first 40 or so games this season, the Washington Capitals were fortunate on the injury front: Few players were sidelined for any significant amount of time. But over the past two weeks, the list of hobbled players has steadily grown.
The Capitals could be without as many as four key contributors — Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Mike Green and Eric Fehr — in this important final week before the NHL’s Olympic break.
With three home games this week, beginning Tuesday against the New York Islanders, the Capitals have an opportunity to climb back into the playoff picture before the two-week hiatus — if they can scrape together points. For a team that hasn’t won more than two games in a row since Dec. 7-10, though, establishing any type of consistency with that many important players missing from the lineup will be a challenge.
“We’re professionals, and the hard times build character. We’re in a hard time right now,” Jay Beagle said. “It’s a big opportunity for me to step up and play a bigger role. I don’t really look at it too much for myself. I just try and do what I can do to help my team win. We need wins. We’re fighting right now for every two points. It’s huge every night. It’s a good opportunity for me to step up and help my team win.”
On Jan. 24 at New Jersey, Grabovski injured his left ankle when Devils captain Bryce Salvador fell on him in front of the net. Grabovski, who had been anchoring Washington’s second line, has missed five consecutive games and isn’t expected to play again before the break.
His absence alone is a blow to the Capitals’ depth at center, where Grabovski and top pivot Nicklas Backstrom are the only elite playmakers.
On Thursday, Green was knocked out of a game in Columbus with a concussion after being checked into the end boards by Blue Jackets forward Boone Jenner. Green, who is second on the team in average ice time and a fixture on the power play, took part in the first 10 minutes of Monday’s practice, but given how difficult it is to gauge recovery time from concussions, it’s unknown when he will be able to return to the lineup. Without him, the Capitals, already lacking in defensive depth, are forced to lean on youngsters such as Dmitry Orlov and Connor Carrick for more critical workloads.
“You want all your guys, but at the end of the day the guys that get minutes have done a good job,” Coach Adam Oates said. “They played a good game [against Detroit on Sunday], but you want your regulars. You want your guys as much as possible.”
Laich, who has been coping with a nagging groin problem for two years, tightened up Jan. 31 in Detroit and didn’t finish that contest. He sat out Sunday as well, but after taking part in Monday’s practice, he said he hoped to be able to play Tuesday.
His absence further decimated Washington’s depth up front; Laich had moved into the second-line center spot when Grabovski was injured. Without Laich, Beagle — regularly in the bottom six of the lineup — took over the spot.
Two more forwards joined the infirmary after Sunday’s 6-5 win over the Red Wings. Fehr, who has played all three forward positions for various stints this year because of injuries and lineup configurations, suffered an undisclosed lower-body injury when he blocked a shot in the first period. Oates said he believed Fehr would be able to face the Islanders, but it’s difficult to tell for sure until the day of the game.
Gritty fourth-line winger Aaron Volpatti injured his left arm against the Wings, his first game in the lineup after four games as a healthy scratch. While Volpatti hasn’t played consistently, his absence left the Capitals with 10 healthy forwards Monday, prompting more mixing and matching.
No matter who is in the lineup, though, the Capitals know they must find a way to gain points this week if they want to put themselves in a better position heading into the break.
“It’s not so much about the name on the back but the logo on the front and doing it all together,” Laich said. “You maybe don’t have as much specific individual skill, but you can get the job done by committee. I think the guys have done a good job. We’ve got three games left to go, and we want to have them all.”