WINNIPEG, Manitoba – They were the first two Washington Capitals onto the ice Friday afternoon at MTS Centre, countrymen and close friends alike, so forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov piled pucks at one blue line and tried cranking them into the far goal in the interest of competition. Some scored. Most thudded off the boards. Orlov’s final shot, though, somehow landed onto the netting behind the crossbar, in that horizontal space only accessible from above. He raised his stick and hollered. He smiled and Kuznetsov shouted too.
Nearing the 10-month anniversary of his wrist surgery, the operation that will likely cause Orlov to miss most of the season, he can see the end of a long recovery process. He had been here before several times, feeling close but not close enough, and this taught him to avoid excitement. He peppered a five-minute interview with “We’ll see” and “Hard to say” and “Right now,” because he learned one setback could turn into weeks.
“We talk like every month,” he said to the reporter who’d written this, this and this about Orlov’s road back, each time raising the prospect of how near the 23-year-old seemed to returning into game action. “And yeah it feel better, it’s close, but it’s not…and right now it’s close. We’ll see how it works for me. Not to expect anything big. Just we’ll see how it feels.”
The little signs have accumulated, pointing toward the final step coming sometime within the next week. Orlov dialed back his off-ice conditioning, redirecting his energies into practice, where he has tried harder to simulate game atmospheres during five-on-five drills and special teams. Three months ago, he skated before his teammates, alone with strength coach Mark Nemish, and little more. Now, he can shoot hard again and engage in puck battles.
“He looks good,” defenseman Mike Green said. “I feel for the guy. He’s been out for a long time. I’ve gone through injuries and you never want to see another guy go through that. I hope he’s better. He looks like it. The good thing about Orlov is he’s had a positive attitude all year, as frustrating as it’s been.”
And then there’s this: Last week, Coach Barry Trotz said Orlov would accompany the Capitals on their two-game road trip to Minnesota and Winnipeg, ramping up his intensity during practice, then likely head to the American Hockey League for a three-game conditioning stint allowed by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.
After returning from their weekend back-to-back in Portland, Maine, the Hershey Bears don’t play again until a three-in-three next weekend, including two games at home. If all goes well, Orlov could find himself playing in his first professional hockey game of the year then. And – here’s the kicker – Trotz even allowed his mind to wander ahead, beyond Orlov’s prospective return to the Capitals, once his conditioning stint ends.
“The first thing is we’re going to clear him and get him down to Hershey, let him play there,” Trotz said. “In terms of insurance-wise, you’re allowed so many games in so many days, so we’ll try to fulfill that commitment. Then we’ll make our decision on him. If he feels he can play, we’ll have to get him in and take a look for sure at this level. I think he’s a really good young player. But the games at this time of year are pretty important and pretty fast. We’ll see how he does. We’ve got to give him the best chance to succeed, and the first part will be getting him to Hershey.”
Once practice officially ended and the Capitals scattered for individual work, Trotz pulled Orlov aside. While Orlov handled a puck, Trotz jabbed at him with the butt of his stick, something they began doing together in recent weeks to train Orlov’s range of motion in a pressured but controlled situation.
Later, last off the ice yet again, Orlov dug into a sandwich and sat inside his locker stall. Next to him stood Kuznetsov, conducting an on-camera interview. When the Capitals boarded their chartered flight from Minneapolis, Kuznetsov took a selfie of them together and wrote a caption promising Orlov was “coming soon.”
But Orlov knew better. The recovery had taken so long, the concept of “soon” had lost its meaning.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’ll play a couple games in Hershey and we’ll see how it goes. If they give me chance to play here, a couple games before playoffs, I’ll be happy and excited to play. We’ll see what happens after. I missed whole season. It’s hard for me to miss a long time. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, because we’ll see.”
NOTE: Defenseman Tim Gleason practiced with the Capitals after missing Thursday’s win over Minnesota with an upper-body injury, a measure he later called “precautionary.” At Xcel Energy Center, Gleason had been seen with an ice bag on one elbow, but he worked without issue at MTS Centre here in Winnipeg.
“That’ll probably be a morning decision,” Trotz said. “He made through today. We’re pretty close. We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”
The Capitals cancelled their morning skate Saturday before facing the Jets. If Gleason cannot go, defenseman Nate Schmidt will make his sixth straight start as an emergency recall.