As the Washington Capitals finished practice Monday afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz skated over to forward Brooks Laich and asked how he was feeling. More than five weeks had passed since Laich hurt his left shoulder, but now he was dressed in a green sweater, absorbing contact for the first time since re-injuring himself in a failed comeback.
“That’s a good sign,” Laich said, but he also told Trotz what he had long maintained, that this time he would only return once totally healthy. With two days between now and Washington’s next game Wednesday at the New York Islanders, time still remained to make a decision. This time, he felt no need to rush.
“I can’t be a shell of myself,” Laich said. “I can’t go out there, be timid and just try to make it through the game. I’ve got to play when I can be effective. We’ve got other guys that are healthy and can really lean into the game. If I can’t do that for my teammates then I don’t think I can be effective.”
Monday, Laich centered Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, the same spot where he began the season, playing five games before getting hurt in a collision with Florida’s Shawn Thornton on Oct. 18. Laich then hurried back, desperate to help the Capitals break a five-game winless streak in Chicago, which they did. But Laich also hurt himself again, delaying the return by several more weeks.
“It’s a balancing act,” Trotz said. “The only guy who can tell you is the player, really. All the player wants to do is play, but they know they can contribute to the team and not get hurt, and as long as they’re not hurting the team, usually the player will say they want to get back in. That’s where you have to have a trust in the trainers…It’s a balancing act that the player and the trainer usually walk together.”
Once hoping to play a complete regular season, Laich has only played in six of 20 games as the regular season’s quarter-way checkpoint nears.
“Couple weeks ago I wasn’t anywhere near,” he said. “I wanted to play because I wanted to win that hockey game. Feeling a lot better now than when I did when I played that one.”
Forward Liam O’Brien also returned to practice after missing five straight games with a lower-body injury incurred during a morning skate Nov. 14. O’Brien traveled with the Capitals during their recent road trip to St. Louis, Arizona and Colorado, working out with trainers and eventually, by the end, returning to practice on a non-contact basis.
But O’Brien, like Laich, was dressed in a normal practice sweater, on a line beside Michael Latta and Jay Beagle. Trotz expressed no reservations about O’Brien, calling him “pretty close” and saying he expects the 20-year-old rookie to be available Wednesday night.
The only Washington player wearing a non-contact light-blue sweater — defenseman Dmitry Orlov – continued to practice and rehabilitate his surgically repaired wrist, without a definitive timetable.
“Just continuing to follow through on the therapy, trying to get that wrist stronger. A little more flexibility in it,” Trotz said. “You can see he still doesn’t have the strength and the shot…That should come around, I was hoping he would be playing by now, but that should come around hoping it comes around sooner rather than later, because he’s practicing with us. There’s no pain.
“It’s just building up that strength and flexibility, the range of that wrist right now. It’s a sense of a balance, getting the range and building the strength, because when you’re building strength it can be restrictive, and you still want to keep the range.”
NOTE: Defenseman Brooks Orpik did not practice Monday, taking what the Capitals called a “maintenance day.” Orpik also did not practice last Wednesday in Colorado for similar reasons, but played against both the Avalanche and Saturday at home vs. Buffalo.