By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010; D01
The intense burning sensation Washington Capitals defenseman Joe Corvo felt in his lower leg is not one he will soon forget.
Corvo, then a key player for the Carolina Hurricanes, had finished his check along the boards on Capitals prospect Karl Alzner on Nov. 30 at RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. It was a routine play, one Corvo has made hundreds of times during his seven-season career.
But this time, Alzner's skate blade and Corvo's leg converged. As the players collided, Alzner's skate cut into the unprotected backside of Corvo's leg, slicing through two pairs of socks, his skin, calf muscle, a nerve and his Achilles' tendon.
"He just dumped the puck in, and I just tried to finish him off, rub him out," Corvo said. "At the time, his knee was against the boards and his skate was up. My leg swung around with full force and his leg had nowhere to go because it was against the boards. His skate went all the way in, slashing everything."
Corvo glanced down and saw blood soaking his red sock. More disconcerting, however, was the disconnect between his brain and foot.
"My foot was stuck in a particular position," he said, "and I really couldn't move it."
Corvo, a 32-year-old native of Illinois, was rushed to nearby Rex Hospital, where he underwent extensive surgery and needed more than 100 stitches. He missed Carolina's next 28 games, and being sidelined stirred mixed emotions.
This season had been a rough one, even before the injury. The Hurricanes lost 14 games in a row from Oct. 10 to Nov. 15, a skid that scuttled their playoff hopes and soured Corvo's outlook, just one season after he notched 14 goals and 24 assists in the regular season and helped the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference finals.
"We were doing horribly, and then I got hurt," he said. "At that time, I was doing pretty bad. I was angry that it happened. But it was almost like I needed a mental break from the whole grind that was going on there."
Corvo's real break came Wednesday afternoon when the Hurricanes dealt him to Washington for Brian Pothier, a prospect and a draft pick. Like that, Corvo had gone from 28th place to the NHL's top team, the one that almost ended his season only three months earlier.
"If you had to pick three teams to get traded to, this is one of them," he said. "You would have to pick the reigning Stanley Cup champions, and I won't mention their name in this locker room. Or that team in San Jose. But I think this is the best team in the East."
After overcoming some first-game jitters in his Capitals debut Thursday, a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay, Corvo was one of the team's steadiest defensemen. In Saturday's 2-0 win over the New York Rangers, he notched his first point, a secondary assist on Eric Fehr's five-on-three game-winner.
In both games, Corvo was used on the power play and penalty kill and logged more than 20 minutes of ice time. More importantly, Corvo's versatility has allowed Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau to more evenly distribute playing time on the blue line and keep Mike Green's minutes in check.
"It's good," Green said. "If we're on the power play a lot, it tires me out a little bit, and then five on five, it's difficult to be effective defensively. It's good to have another defenseman who can step up and play some of those minutes."
Although Boudreau coached Corvo for parts of three seasons while the two were in the Los Angeles Kings minor league system, the coach didn't realize how much Corvo's game had matured until watching him from behind the bench.
"I'm really glad we got him," he said. "I know he's a really good defenseman. He's seven years smarter than when I had him. He used to just be a puck-moving defenseman with great offensive skills. Now, he's gotten a lot better in his own zone."
Corvo said he's still in the process of relearning Boudreau's system, but that he's getting more comfortable with each shift he takes. He's also still looking for his first goal since notching his fourth of the season on the night he was injured.
"It's a little like being a fish out of water, mostly because the neutral-zone system is so different than Carolina's," he said. "I'm kind of responsible for the middle here. In Carolina, my only responsibility was the right winger. That's a big difference."
Since returning from the injury, Corvo has been wearing a Kevlar-coated sock designed to prevent puncture injuries. He also has found himself playing more conservatively because he still hasn't completely regained his trademark burst of speed. Because of that, he takes fewer risks when carrying the puck.
"I have to anticipate a little more to keep on the right side of things, so I'm not always chasing," he said. "By next season I should be all right."
But before worrying about next season, he said he's determined to maximize the opportunity before him.
"This is a chance," he said, "that you only get once or twice in a whole career."