The Washington Capitals have more wins and fewer losses than at this point last year, and bring an NHL-leading six-game winning streak into Saturday's game against Northeast Division-leading Toronto. Perhaps even more important, they have cruised into the second half of the season as one of the healthiest teams in the league, a marked improvement over injury-plagued seasons of the past.
The Capitals were weakened by injuries throughout the last decade, never more so than last season, when they led the league and set a franchise record with 511 man-games lost over an 82-game season. This season, the first under head trainer Greg Smith and team physician Ben Shaffer, the man-games missed stand at 72 through 44 games (not including the 44 games assigned to minor leaguer Trevor Halverson, who suffered a preseason concussion); at this point last year that total surpassed 250. Winger Peter Bondra had been out with a sprained knee, but he practiced with the team today and will play Saturday for the first time since Jan. 4.
One of the team's primary goals was fielding a healthy and stable lineup--something integral to the Capitals' goal of returning to the postseason--and so far the coaches, players and management are overjoyed with the results of Smith's regimen.
"I'm very pleased with it," Coach Ron Wilson said. "By technicality, Trevor Halverson is counted against the record, but other than that we must be 200 percent better than we were last year, and the compliance by most of the players has been excellent.
"A lot of the program is new and [Smith] has a different way of operating with the players. He's much more in control and hands-on and demanding, and I think that's made a difference with a number of players."
The Capitals parted ways with longtime trainer Stan Wong during the summer--he's now with Florida--and brought in Smith, who spent the past two years in Anaheim, Calif., helping keep the Mighty Ducks one of the healthiest teams in the league. He has changed the Capitals' stretching and training programs, doing more work off the ice and urging players to spend extra time working the muscles around their groin and lower back, areas of frequent strains and pulls among hockey players.
"We're still not totally following the program, but we're getting closer," Smith said. "You can't make the guys do all the exercises on and off the ice. You kind of have to do a little bit and they have to believe in it. That's what we're trying to do--we're making pretty good strides, but I think we could be a lot better."
Naturally, Smith felt pressure coming to a team with a history of injury problems. Originally, many wondered if former coach Jim Schoenfeld was at the root of the problem, putting the team through rigorous practices even after games. However, the problem continued under Wilson, who is far less militant.
Smith has a three-year plan and hopes that by the end, the Capitals will be as receptive as the Mighty Ducks were, with many players doing extra stretching at home, especially groin exercises. Smith eventually hopes to have players also doing more off-ice work to prevent shoulder and neck injuries. He's also committed to eliminating the recurring injuries that hampered many Capitals the past few years.
"It's a selling process every day for me," Smith said. "It's a process. I have to be a realist and when I came here I knew I wasn't going to change everything overnight. It's a big commitment for some of these guys because maybe they haven't done a lot of off-ice stuff before, but we're going to get better and do it. I'm pretty happy so far."
The players have noticed a difference. Their commitment to the program is vital.
"We definitely spend much more time stretching out before and after practice," Bondra said. "And it seems to me not as many guys hurt their groin and stomach muscles. . . . Knock on wood, the injuries will keep avoiding us and hopefully I'll be included in that soon."