Capitals will see what they have in reserve

John Carlson, shown during his NHL debut Friday night, is one of the Capitals' reinforcements.
John Carlson, shown during his NHL debut Friday night, is one of the Capitals' reinforcements. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

OTTAWA -- Depleted by injuries to nearly a third of the lineup, and weary from playing two games in two countries on back-to-back nights, the Washington Capitals were granted a reprieve Sunday.

Unfortunately for them, having a day off from practice to rest and regroup at a plush resort in suburban Ottawa might not do much to aid an injury-ravaged roster.

The Capitals could again be without seven players who were on the opening-night roster when they play the Senators at Scotiabank Place on Monday.

Coaches and players are loath to make excuses about injuries, but it has been evident in the past two games -- one-goal losses to 21st-place Montreal and 30th-place Toronto -- that the cumulative effect of missing big-minute players such as Alexander Semin, Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn is taking its toll.

The recent rash of injuries has forced Coach Bruce Boudreau to put players in positions in which they're not completely comfortable (left wing Tomas Fleischmann struggled when he lined up as a right wing against Montreal), give significant ice time to rookies before they're ready for it, and lean more on others than he would like. (Mike Green, for example, skated a season-high 31 minutes 38 seconds against the Maple Leafs.)

"You can't use it as an excuse because that makes it look like you're looking for a crutch," Boudreau said. "But there's a reality to it. Look at Pittsburgh, losing after a great start. There's a reality where you're missing Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar.

"They're used to having all those guys play a lot of minutes and they're counted on," he added. "We're bringing up young guys and asking them to play a lot of minutes."

It's unclear when the Capitals' collective health will begin to improve. But what's not up for debate is this: They also were one of the league's five most injured teams last season.

"It's the age-old question: Do you do something different than other teams?" Boudreau said. "I don't know the answer. I give lots of days off. I'm big on that, especially after Christmas when fatigue is a major part of injuries. I push them hard to Christmas and then that's it.

"The whole thing in the NHL right now is that if you have a week injury, you're missing three or four games because of the compressed schedule," he added. "Nobody from late November on has a stretch where they play Saturday and then not again until Friday."

The injuries also cause headaches for the Capitals' management. Because the team is pressed up against the salary-cap ceiling -- a problem exacerbated by the stalemate over Michael Nylander's status -- the team constantly is shuffling players on and off injured reserve and also must make minor league call-ups based on their cap hit rather than on merit. Nylander hasn't played a game, and, in fact, is no longer even practicing with the Capitals, but has been paid $1.3 million and counts $4.875 million against the $56.8 million salary-cap ceiling.

One of the organization's top youngsters, defenseman Karl Alzner, has seen player after player get called up from the minor leagues ahead of him this season because of his salary. At $1.675 million (plus incentives), he's the most expensive player in the system. By comparison, rookie defenseman John Carlson, who is set to play in his third NHL game Monday, makes $631,000.

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