The Washington Capitals greeted the return of winger Peter Bondra Saturday night with obvious excitement, but also with some concern. Bondra missed 15 of 19 games with knee injuries before returning against the Toronto Maple Leafs--a span in which the Capitals asserted themselves, playing a total team game with an emphasis on defense and rolling off six straight victories.
It's common for teams to thrive for short periods when a star is out--the Pittsburgh Penguins have done it without Jaromir Jagr, the Carolina Hurricanes got off to a great start without Keith Primeau (who was traded yesterday to the Philadelphia Flyers) and the Colorado Avalanche enjoyed success when Peter Forsberg was hurt. And often, when a star returns, there is an adjustment period as players alter their roles. That can lead to a slump. For the Capitals, whose success is predicated on an overall team game, such a slip could be disastrous.
"It's always a concern," Capitals Coach Ron Wilson said. "Sure, I worry about that, but I don't plan on changing how we spread the ice time around. We'll work [Bondra] in gradually and let him play his way into game shape. I'm not throwing Peter out there and letting him play 23 minutes and taking ice time away from the guys who have contributed so much.
"He'll gradually play his way into top form, and then it's a lot easier for everyone else to accept maybe some diminished ice time. I'm hoping we don't change a thing about our approach to the game and the way we play. It's not, 'Peter's back, we'll open up.' We're going to play the same way."
The Capitals (20-17-8) did open up Saturday night, playing run-and-gun hockey with a loaded Toronto team, earning a comeback 5-5 tie and running their undefeated streak to seven games. Bondra is playing with Andrei Nikolishin and newcomer Terry Yake--for now basically the third line. Bondra played 14 minutes Saturday and struggled to get his timing back. His hand movements, usually potent, were off, but that should come with a few more games.
To their credit, the Capitals shone without him, climbing into the sixth playoff spot and establishing an identity after an up-and-down first half.
Washington went 9-6 without Bondra and is 11-8-4 since he last scored a goal--Nov. 27 against the New York Islanders. Other players have picked up the scoring slack, but the Capitals remain a team in need of scoring help. As with any player who suffers multiple knee injuries, it takes time to trust the knee fully and play without concern. The hope is that with the team hot, Bondra will feel less responsibility to do too much too soon.
"Definitely, it's a lot of fun to be back," Bondra said. "It wasn't like when I hurt the knee the first time, because this time we are winning. There's not as much pressure as before, maybe because the team played well. Hopefully, I'll have more luck in terms of injuries, and hopefully, I'll help the team win more games.
"Definitely, it's been a long time since I scored, way back. I don't even remember that far, but I'm not looking back, I'm only looking forward. If I help the team score goals, fine, if not, you just have to do whatever you can do to win games."
The Capitals have not openly discussed the possibility of slipping with Bondra back, but the possibility is not lost on any of the players. They realize how slim the difference between winning and losing is, and they know they can't expect Bondra to carry them. They just want to keep their momentum going, continue to play sound defensive hockey and maintain their playoff run. They cannot afford to take anything for granted, Bondra or no Bondra.
"I'm sure when teams get a big gun back sometimes they say, 'We got our main man back,' and they relax a little bit," Capitals captain Adam Oates said. "It is a point. But I think with this team it's different because we've been winning, and a lot of times teams struggle. And, although we couldn't wait to have Bonzai back, I think it's a little different mind-set in this case and hopefully, we won't let up, we'll just continue to play well and that makes it easier on Bonzai. He doesn't have to save the team, he can just come in and play. Hopefully, that will be the case."