By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; D01
The Washington Capitals could have used some good news Tuesday, but instead, they were dealt another significant blow: Their most experienced defenseman won't be on the ice for Wednesday's decisive Game 7 against the Montreal Canadiens.
Tom Poti, who was struck in the face by an errant shot late in the second period of a stunning 4-1 loss in Game 6 Monday night, returned after the game with the team and was scheduled to have surgery Tuesday, according to one of his teammates.
It was unclear whether the procedure was on his eyeball or the delicate bones surrounding it, though Coach Bruce Boudreau described the injury as "significant" and said Poti could be sidelined two to three weeks or longer.
Although there are two spare defensemen on the roster -- Tyler Sloan and John Erskine -- the Capitals, facing a fourth Game 7 in three seasons and desperate to avoid a letdown after a record-breaking regular season, recalled Karl Alzner on Tuesday.
Alzner had been preparing for a playoff game with the minor league Hershey Bears, but instead hopped on a flight from Albany to Washington and is expected to join the Capitals for Wednesday's morning skate. It's possible he'll replace Poti and skate alongside rookie John Carlson, his partner for much of the season with the American Hockey League-leading Bears.
If Alzner plays, he'll make his NHL playoff debut on one of sport's most pressure-packed stages. The veteran he's stepping in for, meantime, has 51 postseason contests on his résumé.
Poti has also been one of the Capitals' most important players this postseason, receiving the third-most ice time per game (21 minutes 22 seconds) behind Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin. He also anchors the eighth-ranked penalty kill, which has extinguished 23 of the 26 short-handed situations in the series (81.5 percent), and led the league in plus-minus with a plus-9.
"Tom Poti has been great," Boudreau said. "You lose one of your best, [most] experienced players. It's a tough thing, but look: This is the playoffs and you lose players. People come in and it's a chance to be a hero. That's what hockey is all about. It's a battle of attrition after a while when you play a team seven times."
Poti, one of 10 Capitals who does not wear a protective half shield, was struck by a Mike Cammalleri backhander while the Capitals were killing a penalty assessed to Eric Fehr late in the second period. The defenseman skated straight off the ice, headed to the dressing room and did not return for the third period.
Despite the loss of a key player and the team's dire situation, the mood was unexpectedly calm at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Boudreau, Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble and Eric Belanger did not go on the ice during the light 45-minute session.
With the exception of Poti, all of the absentees are believed to be healthy and able to suit up. But there's one lineup question that may not be answered until Wednesday morning: the Capitals' starting goaltender.
Semyon Varlamov yielded a pair of goals of questionable quality in Monday's 4-1 loss, but Boudreau hinted that the rookie would get the nod in one of the biggest games in franchise history over veteran José Theodore, who has not played since being pulled after giving up goals on the first two shots he faced in Game 2.
"With [Michael] Cammalleri's first goal, you could see the one-foot diameter of the net and that's where he hit it," Boudreau said. "The other two shots were tipped and then he made a couple of great saves . . .to keep it at that level in the first period. To me it wasn't an indication of Varly not being sharp. I know him well enough to know that if he's not sharp I wouldn't have a problem pulling him in the course of the game."
Boudreau acknowledged that he took a few steps toward Theodore on the bench Monday, but decided against making the switch.
"I had to walk and think a little bit before making a rash decision," Boudreau said. "I stopped and said, 'Okay, calm down.' "
Regardless of who's in net, or the fact that a key piece on the blue line will be sidelined, Ovechkin said he is excited, prepared and well aware of the consequences of a third straight losing effort.
"You lose and you're done," the captain said. "We don't want it to be the last game of the year tomorrow night. We want to continue. Tomorrow, one team is going to be on vacation. I don't want to think about vacation."