Capitals forward Brett Connolly was medically cleared earlier this week after he suffered the first concussion of his career Oct. 26 in Vancouver, and it appears Sunday’s contest against Edmonton will mark his official return.
“That was kind of the game circled on the calendar for me,” said Connolly, who missed seven games because of the injury.
Connolly added that he’s “not sure” if he’ll play against the Oilers, but the expectation is that he will, especially after the team reassigned forward Liam O’Brien to the American Hockey League. The Capitals’ practice Saturday afternoon was optional, so there wasn’t any indication of what the lines could look like with Connolly back. Before he got hurt, Connolly had a goal and an assist in 10 games, playing primarily on the third line with center Lars Eller, but it seems unlikely he’d immediately bump Tom Wilson or Jakub Vrana from that line with Washington coming off an impressive 4-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
In his first game back, Connolly may replace O’Brien as the fourth-line left wing alongside center Jay Beagle and Alex Chiasson. Chiasson moved into Connolly’s spot on the second power-play unit while Connolly was out, and it is also unclear whether Connolly will immediately step back into that role. In his first season with the Capitals last year, Connolly scored a career-high 15 goals, an important piece for the team’s scoring depth.
“I’m going a little crazy and want to get back in the lineup,” Connolly said. “… It’s a long year and there’s still 60-whatever games left, so I’m looking to come in right away and have a good game. My start to the year has been okay, and like I said, there’s a lot of year of left. I just kind of want to go in there, have some good vibes about my game and get going right away. Hopefully, I can do that tomorrow.”
Forward Tyler Graovac, who has missed 10 games with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, and defenseman Matt Niskanen, who hurt his hand a month ago, also practiced Saturday, but they’re not expected to be back in the lineup Sunday. Both are still on injured reserve, and while Niskanen shed his no-contact jersey for a normal one, the skate was a light one.
Graovac said he probably needs “a couple more days” to get some strength back. Washington acquired Graovac from Minnesota in a trade this summer, and he impressed the Capitals with his play in the preseason and earned a roster spot. Injured players are often isolated from teammates, which is hard enough, but it is especially so when a player is new to a team and city. Graovac laughingly said he has binge-watched the Netflix show “Stranger Things” in his free time. But now that he is inching closer to playing again, he knows the competition to stay on the roster has returned.
Chandler Stephenson, called up from the AHL eight games ago, has played well with two goals and three assists, so he is likely to stick around while someone else might get waived. That puts some pressure on Graovac and other depth forwards whenever they get opportunities in the lineup.
“I think it’s great,” Graovac said. “That’s just the game, no matter what team you’re on. There’s going to be those guys all over. The depth is there, and I think from a team standpoint, it’s awesome. As an individual, I want to grow my game after training camp. I want to really show what I have and earn the coaches’ trust.”
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