It took just one game, and a preseason game at that, for Calle Johansson's fears to vanish. His worries about his surgically repaired rotator cuff -- and even his ability to play hockey again -- began to fade Oct. 2 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in a minor league rink against mostly minor league competition.
For much of the summer the Washington Capitals worried that their linchpin defenseman might never play regularly again, but through six games Johansson, 35, has done nothing but get better. His right shoulder has not bothered him or caused him to miss a shift. He has withstood several heavy checks and ample abuse and his recovery is proceeding smoothly.
"So far, so good," Johansson said. "I try not to think about it too much, because I kind of want to put it behind me as much as I can. I don't want to dwell on it, but certainly it feels great. I've been taking some hits and I have no pain at all. I'm really happy about it.
"I think once I played that first exhibition game, after that there really hasn't been any surprises. I know it was only an exhibition game, but at the same time a game is a game, and you kind of know if it's going to hold up or not. And I felt right then and there that this [shoulder] is doing just fine."
Johansson played only 11 games last season after suffering the injury in the second contest. He had surgery on Nov. 12, then for the rest of the season watched in anguish as the once-stifling defensive team compiled the sixth-worst goals against average in the NHL and failed to make the playoffs.
Johansson's recovery was not going much better, either. He endured a summer of setbacks and was unsure how much he would be able to play as training camp began. He and the training staff made major strides in late September, however, and after several visits to a shoulder clinic in Kentucky, Johansson began to feel more confident about his ability to return.
The scope of Johansson's workouts has intensified since then, with more weight and repetitions added, and he has responded well.
"He's been great," said trainer Greg Smith, adding that Johansson will have to continue a shoulder-maintenance regime for the rest of his career and beyond. "Calle's got a great work ethic and [team physician Ben Shaffer] did a terrific job with the surgery and the rehab is going very well. With the type of injury he had and the type of surgery he had, to come back and play not only a contact sport, but a collision sport, it's a really great thing."
Johansson, playing his 15th season in Washington and second in franchise history in games played (907, 33 games behind Kelly Miller), is again playing in every critical situation, facing the best forwards in the NHL. A top penalty killer, he skates on the second power play unit and is a fixture in the final minutes of close games.
"Obviously, we're happy to see him get out of the gate so well," Coach Bruce Cassidy said. "And as the months progress I think you'll see him jump in the play a little more and be a little more involved and be able to sustain that pace."
Johansson played 19 minutes in the season opener -- a hefty load for someone out nearly a year -- and is now playing closer to 25 minutes a night, already among the team's ice-time leaders. He is the only one of Washington's defensemen to play all six games and not be a minus player in any one of them. Yet he is far form satisfied.
"To me, personally, I'd like to play a lot better than I am right now," said Johansson, the franchise leader in games, assists and points by a defenseman. "And hopefully, with more time, it's going to come."
Regardless, Johansson's teammates are impressed with what he has accomplished. The Capitals are playing much better in their zone, no longer porous in front of the net and imminently susceptible to two-on-ones, with the steadying force back on the ice.
"He's a big part of our team, and last year we really missed him," defenseman Brendan Witt said. "It really showed on the back line. You see him now and it doesn't look like he missed a shift. I played that game with him in Wilkes-Barre and it was amazing -- it didn't look like he had taken any time off -- and he's been really good since then."
Capitals Notes: The team made its third waiver claim in a month yesterday, taking defenseman Alex Henry, 23, from Edmonton. Henry, 6 feet 5, 220 pounds, has spent three seasons in the minors, played the first three games for the Oilers this season and had to clear waivers before he could be sent back down. Henry is having immigration problems, McPhee said, and is unlikely to join the club until Monday; the Capitals will have to make a roster move then to stay at the 23-man limit. The team does not plan to send rookie defenseman Steve Eminger back to his junior team, sources said, and could carry nine defensemen and send a forward such as Mike Farrell to the minors or opt to buy out or demote veteran defenseman Sylvain Cote, who has yet to play this season. . . . Center Dainius Zubrus rejoined the team for practice yesterday after missing Wednesday's game to witness the birth of his first child.