By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009
In the final minutes of last Thursday's game in Tampa, the Washington Capitals' Brian Pothier was crushed in the corner by 6-foot-5, 254-pound Lightning winger Evgeny Artyukhin.
The Capitals' coaches and players looked on anxiously, but they were relieved moments later when the defenseman popped up and skated away. Pothier was fine and, more important, had passed another test in his return from post-concussion syndrome.
"He got me pretty good," Pothier said with a smile this week.
Now comes the difficult part in Pothier's long road back to the NHL: becoming the player he was before the devastating injury that nearly ended his career.
Pothier has appeared in three of the Capitals' five games since his return and is expected to play tomorrow night against the Lightning after missing Tuesday's 3-2 shootout defeat in Toronto. Coach Bruce Boudreau scratched Pothier against the Maple Leafs because he wants to ease the veteran back into the lineup, much like the way players gradually ramp up their workloads in the preseason.
Pothier's comeback began with the minor league Hershey Bears earlier this month, but nothing, not two months of practicing with the Capitals or a four-game stint in the American Hockey League, could prepare him for the speed of an NHL game.
Pothier got off to a shaky start in his season debut with the Capitals on March 16 in Atlanta. He was in the penalty box for hooking when the Thrashers scored the game's first goal. He was also partly to blame for the penalty that led to Atlanta's second goal. The rust that had accumulated over the course of a 14-month layoff was apparent.
Pothier has begun to look more polished in the eight periods since. His outlet passes are getting crisper. His decision-making has been sharper. He's steering opposing forwards in the direction he wants them to go, rather than allowing them to impose their will on him.
"I feel better every game," Pothier said. "I'm initiating now and not reacting."
Pothier's biggest challenge has been regaining his timing, particularly when moving the puck out of the defensive end.
"I have to get back to moving smoothly," Pothier said. "It's like I'm going through a process. I'm getting the puck, then looking around, then moving my feet, then passing. But that all has to be seamless and quick. That's when I'm most effective, when it's just, 'Go, go.' It's coming."
The Capitals are counting on it. When General Manager George McPhee stood pat at the trade deadline, part of the reason for his inactivity was the imminent return of Pothier.
Pothier, in fact, excels in two areas where Washington could use the most help: clearing the zone and point production from a defenseman not named Mike Green. Pothier gives the Capitals four defensemen proficient in moving the puck out of trouble, joining Green, Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz. He also gives the team a secondary scoring threat to complement Green, the NHL leader among defensemen in goals (28) and points (65). Pothier has eight goals and 34 assists in 113 games with the Capitals.
"What I like is that when he has the time and space, he can make that long pass and he sees the offensive side of the game really well," Boudreau said. "That's one of his assets -- his puck-moving ability, that first pass right onto someone's tape. It's something not everyone can do, and no team has enough of them."
Pothier is also in the best shape of his career. Last summer, at the height of his inactivity, Pothier had gotten up to 225 pounds. Now he's down to 195 pounds, five less than what he weighed at the start of last season, after going through two months of hard skating and off-ice training with Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish.
For Pothier, one of the most difficult parts of last season was being sidelined when the Capitals made their first trip to playoffs in five years. But in three weeks -- if all goes as expected -- Pothier will make his own return to the postseason, three seasons after playing in eight playoff games with the Senators.
"It's a good gauge for me to come back at this time of year with us making a push and other teams making a push -- then I know I should be good in the playoffs to contribute," Pothier said.
Capitals Notes: The Capitals clinched a playoff berth with Florida's 5-3 loss at Buffalo last night. . . . Forwards Steve Pinizzotto and Chris Bourque and goaltender Daren Machesney were returned to Hershey. Goaltender Simeon Varlamov, meantime, was recalled. . . . Free agent defenseman Zach Miskovic was signed to a one-year entry-level contract for 2009-10. He played for St. Lawrence this season and will join Hershey on an amateur tryout contract.