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Injured forward Aaron Volpatti to start practicing in Hershey

Washington Capitals forward Aaron Volpatti will move one step closer to returning from neck surgery this week when he starts practicing with the Hershey Bears, preparing for his conditioning loan in the American Hockey League and later his return to the NHL.

More than seven months ago, the 29-year-old winger underwent a neck fusion procedure that only recently allowed him to work without a non-contact sweater during practice and absorb contact. According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Volpatti’s conditioning loan, allowed because the Capitals placed him onto long-term injured reserve before the season began, cannot exceed six days and three games in Hershey, though Washington can request two more games.

“It’s that last 10 percent I’m waiting for, taking a little bit longer than I hoped,” Volpatti said in late October. “I don’t have a timetable, but it feels good. Like I said, the last month it’s been hard to get over that plateau, that last 10 percent. That patience is being tested. It’s one of those things where I have to make sure it’s fully healed. I’ve been dealing with it for a long time right now. Can’t keep going the way I have. Just really got to make sure, especially with contact, that’s the biggest thing.”

Claimed off waivers from Vancouver in February 2013, Volpatti has logged 137 penalty minutes over 112 career NHL games, including 58 with the Capitals. Whenever Volpatti returns to Washington, he would become the 14th healthy forward, provided no injuries occur before then. Coach Barry Trotz has already expressed a preference for carrying 13 forwards, which recently caused Liam O’Brien, a fourth-line grinder of a similar ilk, to get reassigned to Hershey. Volpatti, however, would need waivers to remain with the Bears beyond his conditioning loan.

“Just want to put it behind me,” he said. “Make sure it’s fully healed so I don’t have to deal with it anymore.”