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How to stop Capitals defenseman Mike Green? Hit him, opponents say

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:30 AM

Between periods of a Capitals-Penguins game back in December, Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma had a simple message for his players: "Keep hitting Green."

Bylsma's words, picked up by HBO cameras filming the "24/7" television series on the two teams, revealed what to many around the NHL has long been known as a primary strategy to counter Mike Green, Washington's free-wheeling defenseman.

Hit him early, and hit him often.

"We are physical with him and I think it's a respect thing," Penguins center Michael Rupp, who was charged with executing Bylsma's strategy during the Dec. 23 game, told reporters in Pittsburgh this week. "You have to realize what he's capable of doing. With the weapons they have, you don't want him to be at his best. You have to be physical with him."

That physicality has taken its toll.

Over the past 36 days, the Capitals have received a reminder of what things are like on the ice without their top defenseman, who has played less than 25 minutes since he was struck in the head by a puck on Feb. 6.

Since that initial injury, the two-time Norris Trophy finalist suffered a second blow to the head on Feb. 25, that time from an elbow delivered by New York Rangers rookie Derek Stepan. No one has alleged either play derived from malicious intent.

While the Capitals have not formally classified Green's injuries, it's believed he suffered concussions on both occasions.

"I'm not calling it anything," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said Monday, when Green skated with the team at practice for the first time since the Rangers game. "It just wasn't right. You saw the play, he got hit in the head."

Boudreau emphasized that there is no rush to get him back into the lineup. "We want to make sure that Mike is absolutely symptom-free of everything so this doesn't happen again," he said. "So if we have to wait an extra long time we'll wait an extra long time. It's more about his future than it is about one game, two games or three games."

The trouble is, this is not the first prolonged absence from the lineup for the 25-year-old defenseman, who is listed at 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds.

This season alone, he has also missed time with a shoulder injury and a sprain to his medial collateral ligament. In 2008-09, Green was limited to 68 games in the regular season after suffering an injury to the AC joint in his shoulder from a check by Chris Pronger, then with Anaheim.

When Green does make his way back into the lineup, the Capitals know the physical punishment inflicted on their No. 1 blue-liner won't decrease, given his style of play.

"We sure think he puts himself sometimes in a vulnerable position when he shouldn't be," Boudreau, who has talked to Green about better protecting himself since he coached him when both were with the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears.

"It has everything to do with him trying to draw people closer to him to make a play we're hoping that he learns to make the play earlier," Boudreau said. "Whatever he's doing, it's all for the team and to make the best possible play, but he puts himself in harms way sometimes."

Green plays down any concern about opponents singling him out, though he admits that it seems to be the case and that he's tried to find ways to limit his exposure to booming hits.

"I think any team you play, they're out there to finish their checks. I've felt like the last couple years it's been a lot more so against me, but it is what it is," Green said Monday.

"I have to adjust my game to play differently. I move the puck a lot quicker to try to avoid it. I can sense it but I like [the pressure] to be honest. You just play the game, you try to be aware of your surroundings and think ahead."

Green leads the Capitals in average ice time per game and is often relied upon to help break the puck out of the defensive zone. His time spent carrying the puck, serving as the catalyst for Washington's offense whether at even strength or on the power play, makes him an even larger focal point for opponents.

"He was and is a target," said Capitals forward Mike Knuble, who was on the Philadelphia Flyers' roster when they faced Washington in the first round of the playoffs in 2009.

Knuble said it was a part of the Flyers' game plan to try to rattle Green, something that the veteran right wing knows remains the case for many opponents.

"He's probably in better shape now than he was then, physically and just being able to handle it," Knuble said, "but he's a guy who likes to hang on to the puck and [is] our quarterback out there a lot. People know that and it's no secret that they try to punish him as much as they can. Give him credit though, he doesn't shy away from it."

Capitals notes: Neither Nicklas Backstrom nor Michal Neuvirth, both of whom were injured during Monday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, skated on Tuesday. A piece of metal from his goaltender's mask, entered Neuvirth's eye after a puck ricocheted off his head early against Tampa Bay, while Backstrom may have suffered an additional injury to his left hand when he was slashed in the second period. Backstrom has been playing with a fractured left thumb for two weeks.

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