By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
Michael Nylander played through a serious shoulder injury for six weeks, giving the Washington Capitals what he could, despite performing at 50 percent capacity on some nights.
In the end, the veteran center said, the combination of pain, diminished productivity and inability to sleep told him it was time to undergo season-ending surgery this week.
"I was playing with one hand," Nylander said, making his first public comments about the injury during Saturday's 5-3 victory over the Florida Panthers. "I had to change my game. I was playing at 70 percent, 80 percent most nights and it just got worse and worse. It was 50 percent, maybe, sometimes."
The 35-year-old Swede, the Capitals' top free agent signing during the offseason, said he'll miss five or six months while rehabilitating, but added that he expects to make a full recovery.
"It's supposed to be great now," Nylander said, his arm in a sling. "But when I realized how long it will take -- it's so long, it's unbelievable."
In addition to a rotator cuff tear, "I found out that I had a labrum tear, too, and bone spurs," he added. "So I'm glad I went in at this point, because it would have just gotten worse."
It's frustrating, Nylander said, that his season has come to an end just as his team's season appears to be taking off. Saturday's win was the Capitals' third in a row and moved them to .500 (21-21-5) for the first time in three months. It also pulled them within sight of the Southeast Division lead.
Tonight, they can extend their streak at Mellon Arena against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won the last six meetings between the teams but are without Sidney Crosby (63 points). He's sidelined indefinitely with a high ankle sprain.
The Penguins won their first game without Crosby, beating the Canadiens in Montreal, 2-0, on Saturday.
The Capitals, meantime, are 6-1 without Nylander, who had become a defensive liability because of the limited strength in one arm. Still, there's little doubt the team would be better off with a healthy Nylander centering one of the top two forward lines. He's their second-leading scorer with 11 goals and 37 points, though he also posted an un-Nylander-like a plus-minus rating of minus-19 in 40 games, one season after finishing plus-12 with the New York Rangers.
"It was tough for me to play anywhere on the ice," Nylander said. "I couldn't battle to take the puck away from people. I had no strength in my arm. It made my overall game less effective. I also had to protect myself."
He said he suffered the injury during Washington's 2-1 win on Dec. 1 in Sunrise, Fla. He recalls feeling a twinge in his shoulder after taking a faceoff, then a shooting pain after absorbing a hit moments later. He finished the game, but was unable to play in the next four.
Knowing the injury would likely worsen and eventually require surgery, he returned to the lineup in the hopes of contributing in any way he could. But his shoulder did not respond to treatment and he wasn't able to work out or rest comfortably. Sleeping pills, he said, made him feel even worse.
"I could take the pain on the ice," he said, "but not sleeping, I was tired all the time."
Alex Ovechkin said Nylander's sacrifice was appreciated by his teammates.
"He's a great team guy," Ovechkin said. "He was injured and he can't even sleep and he still play. He give us opportunity to be what we are right now. It's too bad we lost him for the year. But what he do for us, it's unbelievable."
Said Nylander: "It's just frustrating now. But I have to deal with it. It's a long road, but I know in the end, it's going to be good for me and everyone else, too."