By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009
While Alex Ovechkin still can't say exactly when he'll return to the Washington Capitals' lineup, this much is no longer up for debate: The franchise winger will be back soon.
Ovechkin practiced with his teammates Thursday for the first time since suffering a left shoulder strain on Nov. 1 and did not look encumbered at all by the injury.
He raced up and down the ice, swinging his arms comfortably and carrying his stick in his left hand. He effortlessly zipped passes across the ice to teammates in drills. And, most important, Ovechkin fully wound up on slap shots, sending pucks pinging off goal posts and crackling off the glass behind the net.
"Today was the first day that I could really see that he was shooting to score," goaltender José Theodore said. "Before, he was just shooting just to be out there and shoot. It wasn't up to par. I don't think he's there yet, compared to his usual shot. But if he keeps improving like that, hopefully it won't be long."
Although the 30-minute practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex wasn't much of a test -- it included light drills and did not feature any contact -- surviving it without experiencing any discomfort or pain encouraged Ovechkin to the point where he believes he's within days of suiting up.
The 24-year-old Russian said he's got his full range of motion back and that he's ready to take and deliver hits. He felt so good, in fact, that he remained on the ice and took part in an accurate-shot contest in which he fired more than a dozen shots on net.
"I'm getting closer," Ovechkin said. "I still need probably couple days. I'm excited right now to come back to team to play. Still, a couple of days, maybe."
Coach Bruce Boudreau stopped short of ruling Ovechkin out Friday against Minnesota and Saturday in New Jersey, but hinted that it might make sense to err on the side of caution and keep the star winger out until Tuesday's game against the Rangers in New York. If that is indeed the timeline, Ovechkin will be able to get in another full practice on Monday and use it as a dress rehearsal.
"Every player wants to play, it's just whether he can or not," Boudreau said. "I have to wait for [head athletic trainer Greg Smith] to give me the okay that he's ready and make sure he's ready. If he was to play in New Jersey and we don't play until Tuesday after that, if those three days are going to make it 100-percent better, we're going to wait the three days."
The Eastern Conference-leading Capitals have that luxury at the moment.
Before Ovechkin's most recent injury, the team had gone 1-3-0 without him in the lineup over the previous four seasons. This month, teammates such as Tomas Fleischmann and Mike Knuble have picked up the scoring slack. Led by 10 different goal-scorers the past four games, the Capitals are 3-1-0 and have notched 18 goals without the NHL's two-time MVP, perhaps dispelling the notion that they're a one-player team.
"It's a good sign for our team [that] different guys step up and play harder," Ovechkin said.
Somewhat surprisingly, the power play has also thrived without Ovechkin. The unit is 4 for 7 the past four games and vaulted into seventh place in the league with an effectiveness rate of 23.1 percent.
Watching the unit succeed without Ovechkin has Boudreau considering changes to personnel and alignment when the winger returns. Asked whether he would consider moving Ovechkin off the point, Boudreau said: "Maybe. I like [Brendan Morrison] on the point. I think he does a good job. We'll see."
But Boudreau won't make any decisions until Ovechkin returns. Ovechkin is expected to travel with the team after Friday's game on the upcoming four-day trip so he can continue to practice.
"When you want to play so much, you're so positive, it heals faster," Theodore said. "The mind does a lot of healing and, obviously, his body is something different than the rest of us."
Capitals notes: As of late Thursday, Michael Nylander was said to be still weighing whether to accept a loan to a team in Eastern Europe's Kontinental Hockey League. . . .
David Steckel left the team after Wednesday's game to be with his family following the death of his grandmother. Boudreau said he expects Steckel to return to town on Friday, though he could not say whether the checking-line center would be in the lineup. If Steckel does not play, that likely means center Boyd Gordon will return from a 12-game layoff with a sore back. Gordon's return could also force the team to return Mathieu Perreault to the minor leagues . . .
Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Milan Jurcina did not practice but are expected to face the Wild.