Capitals Play Through the Pain
Rash of Injuries Alters First-Place Club's Chemistry, Strategy

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Every NHL team must cope with injuries during the course of the grueling 82-game regular season, but the recent run of ailments that has ravaged the Washington Capitals' roster is so rare that the players, coaches and general manager can only shake their heads in disbelief.

When the Capitals host the Florida Panthers tonight at Verizon Center, they might be without seven players who started the season on the active roster for a fourth consecutive game. Among the expected absentees: the team's first- and second-best defensemen (Mike Green and Tom Poti, respectively), the second-best offensive threat (Alexander Semin), not to mention key contributors Chris Clark, Sergei Fedorov, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and possibly Boyd Gordon, the Capitals' best player in the faceoff circle.

"I've never seen this many guys out at once," said Green, who has missed six games with a bruised shoulder. "Especially guys who play so many minutes."

When he was asked yesterday if the status of all the injured players had been covered, Coach Bruce Boudreau replied, "I don't know; I can't remember anymore."

Boudreau was attempting to bring some levity to a situation that has the potential to become no joking matter. Through 24 games, the Capitals have lost 82 "man games," a term used when a player (including those on injured reserve) is unable to suit up because of injury or illness.

For comparison's sake, through the same number of games last season, the Capitals had 48 man games lost, and in 2006-07 the figure was 27, according to the team.

The Capitals are 2-1 since the injury situation went from bad to worse in Minnesota on Nov. 24 and remain atop the Southeast Division. But what's not known is how much longer the team can keep it up.

The injuries have forced Boudreau to shuffle his lineup almost daily, which disrupts the chemistry between linemates and defensive partners. The coach also has had to adjust his game plan based on which players he expects to be available.

"I'm trying to figure out what strategy we want to use against Florida [but] that will depend on who we call up," Boudreau said after yesterday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where 19 skaters participated, some in a limited capacity. "We have to determine how we are going to play tomorrow before we make any calls."

The rash of injuries has also led to daily conversations between Boudreau, General Manager George McPhee and salary cap specialist Don Fishman, who calculates the cap implications of each potential roster move, a new consideration for a team that is spending close to the payroll ceiling after years at or near the floor.

"Bruce and I have to spend 20 minutes each day talking to Don," McPhee said. "We have to look at different scenarios. We can do this, we can do that."

Last week, Clark (broken arm) and Schultz (broken finger) were put on long-term injury reserve so the team could squeeze replacements under the cap. By clearing $3.39 million of cap space (the sum of Clark's and Schultz's salaries) the Capitals were able to recall 2007 first-round draft pick Karl Alzner, Sami Lepisto, Chris Bourque and Bryan Helmer from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

Based on practice, at least one player must be recalled today, two if Gordon is unable to suit up. Semin (strained back), Fedorov (sprained ankle) and Green all participated, but only Green appears close to returning. Those three alone account for 24 of the team's 77 goals. Poti (groin) and Gordon (strained back) did not skate, though it's possible Gordon will face the Panthers, Boudreau said. Alzner, after missing the third period of Saturday's 3-0 loss in Columbus, also practiced and figures to return tonight.

As for when the others return, that's left almost exclusively up to the player, McPhee and Boudreau said.

"If they are not ready to go, they are not ready to go," Boudreau said. "Obviously, you cannot sit there and say if he doesn't feel ready to go and [then] force him to play [because] if something happened to him, you could be in serious trouble. But if they say, 'I'll play but I don't think I can go,' then how much are you going to get out of them because then they are playing safe and they're doing it for you. We want to make the player comfortable that he's ready to play 100 percent."

McPhee said it sometimes comes down to an individual's pain threshold.

"Some players can play through things and others can't," he said. "Some players can play through things and their game doesn't change at all and they play great. Some players can play through injuries but they are not very good. And some guys just can't play through them."

If there is a silver lining, it's that the Capitals, through much improved drafting and scouting in recent years, have a number of prospects in the minor league system capable of stepping in. So far, draft picks Alzner, Lepisto, Bourque and free agent acquisition Tyler Sloan have spent time in Washington, and there are others, such as Oskar Osala, who has 16 goals with the Bears, who could get the call soon.

"The difficulty isn't not having someone to call up; it's who to call up," McPhee said. "We're excited to give these young guys a chance. We just don't want to have to do it all at once."

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