DENVER – The uncertain timetable for his recovery from a left shoulder injury remained even as Capitals forward Brooks Laich began practicing again, but the lessons learned from rushing back too soon, he hoped, would create caution this time around. Less than three weeks after incurring the injury during a collision against Florida, Laich wanted to return and help Washington break its winless streak in Chicago. The Capitals did, and Laich got hurt again.
“I was really trying to push to get back,” he said. “You want to help. You want to be part of the team. You want to help win. That sort of rushed me back the first time, but I can’t go like this.”
He was inside a cramped locker room behind the auxiliary rink at Joy Burns Arena on the University of Denver campus, still on injured reserve, another day on the long road back. He felt strong shooting during practice, but still couldn’t, in his words, “fully shoot a puck yet.” Conditioning had never been an issue, because this was a shoulder injury and not the groin issues that had derailed so many prior seasons. The biggest issue rested with reconciling his eagerness to return with the most prudent medical route.
“I can’t keep going … not scared, but timid a little bit, because my body isn’t ready to be out there in the contact and the compete level I’m used to,” he said. “Just hope that it gets a little better each day, then one day I’ll find myself back in the lineup.”
When that might be, Laich was unsure. He has played just six of 19 games this season, returning for the 3-2 victory in Chicago then getting shelved again. Coach Barry Trotz often has spoken about having Laich return, a time when he believes the Capitals can roll four deep in their line deployment, but that means Laich gulping down a hefty dose of self-awareness and realizing the limitations of his shoulder.
“I think he has to come to a little bit of a compromise, where both of them [Laich and the training staff] come to an agreement where he’s ready and go from there,” Trotz said. “Only he can tell us how he feels. No one else. I know he wants to play and he wants to get back as quick as possible, but we need him to have a stretch of games here.
“I understand where he’s at. I’d rather him almost at 100 percent before he comes back so he can have a long run. We miss him. There’s no question, he’s a piece that balances everything out for us really well. To this point in time, when he’s not in the lineup, you can tell.”
But what could Laich do beyond rehabilitate his shoulder during every game, keep practicing to keep his conditioning levels high and, when doctors give the go-ahead, begin absorbing contact? According to Trotz, “there’s a good chance for the weekend,” when the Capitals return home to host Buffalo on Saturday, but they have been here befor.
“It’s tough being on the ice and being a shell of yourself and not being fully able to engage in all the things that you’re used to,” Laich said. “I don’t want to be a detriment to my hockey team by going back on the ice in a shape that I can’t fully compete. It’s very tough mentally to sit and wait for this thing to get better, but I try to remind myself that it’s not a groin injury, it’s a shoulder. I can still skate and participate in practice and hopefully I’ll be back soon.”
O’Brien out for the weekend
Forward Liam O’Brien did not practice Wednesday, instead working with trainers behind the boards, stretching his injured area, dubbed officially by the Capitals as “lower body.” Trotz said the rookie definitely will not face Colorado and likely will miss the Buffalo game too.
O’Brien hurt himself last Friday, at the team’s morning skate before facing New Jersey, and has missed three games since.
“There’s a good chance he’ll be back on the ice, but I don’t expect him to play tomorrow or probably on the weekend,” Trotz said.
Forward Aaron Volpatti (neck) and defenseman Dmitry Orlov (wrist) practiced, though there wasn’t much contact during the half-hour workout.
Day off for several veterans
Trotz gave Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Joel Ward the day off for various reasons. The Capitals don’t have a back-to-back until next weekend — home vs. the New York Islanders, then at Toronto – but Trotz said he might employ a similar plan with different players heading forward, depending on the demands of the schedule.
“Some guys are nicked up, some guys played heavy minutes, some guys I see they’re lacking a little bit of juice because they’re nicked up,” Trotz said. “I’m probably going to do that a few times in the next couple of weeks, just because of the number of games. I may not give everybody the day off, but I may pick a select five or six guys and they’ll have the day off and the other guys will do, then flip-flop it around.”