T.J. Oshie was off balance after hitting San Jose’s Logan Couture in the corner, and so began the Washington Capitals’ latest series of unfortunate events. Sharks forward Joe Thornton skated in to hit Oshie, and with the right wing already falling, Thornton’s posterior crunched Oshie’s head into the glass. Add another name to Washington’s growing list of injuries this season. Oshie is now expected to miss Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks and is considered day-to-day by the team.
The Capitals have enjoyed a completely healthy roster for all of five games, the first five of the season. Then defenseman Matt Niskanen injured his left thumb, and the team has had 60 man-games lost to injury since. Perhaps more frustrating is that every time the team seems to be on the cusp of a complete lineup, someone else gets hurt. Oshie’s injury is a blow to a forward corps that’s expected to get Andre Burakovsky back sometime in the next week after he has missed 19 games with a broken left thumb.
As annoying as the one-step-forward, one-step-backward routine has been, the Capitals also understand that this is more typical for teams than the good health Washington experienced last year, when the team had just 49 man-games lost to injury all season.
“I think it’s just reality,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We lived in an unreal world where we didn’t have a lot of injuries the last two years. This is probably more the normal. … It’s more the parity in the NHL. The games are faster, and the games are getting more important sooner than they ever have before.”
“It’s going to show if we have some character in the room, too, and can come together quickly and win games,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
Oshie didn’t practice on Tuesday, and Trotz said he’s “very doubtful” to play on Wednesday. After forward Chandler Stephenson missed Monday’s game with an undisclosed “upper-body” injury, he’s expected to play against Chicago.
Burakovsky had an X-ray of his left thumb on Monday with a positive prognosis, and though he practiced on Tuesday, Trotz did not seem optimistic Burakovsky would get back in the lineup as early as Wednesday. The team initially targeted his return for early next week, but with Oshie now hurt, perhaps that timetable gets moved up slightly.
“The thumb would probably be fine with it and nothing would happen with it,” Burakovsky said. “Right now, it’s just about getting the timing back. Like I said yesterday, it’s getting the feeling for hockey again, all wall plays and just handling the puck.”
Oshie’s injury comes just as the Capitals have seemingly turned a corner with wins in five of their past six games. The top-six forward corps especially has caught fire since Trotz reunited captain Alex Ovechkin and Backstrom, pairing Oshie with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and rookie Jakub Vrana. Those top two lines had scored 10 five-on-five goals in the past six games, and with Oshie now out, Alex Chiasson is expected to skate on Kuznetsov’s right wing instead. Oshie is coming off a career year that saw him score 33 goals, and he had 10 through 28 games this season.
Brett Connolly, who’s scored two goals in the past two games, is expected to move into Oshie’s spot on the power play, as he did after Oshie left Monday. That’s one potentially positive ripple effect, that injuries give other players opportunities to audition in elevated roles, something that didn’t happen much last season when the Capitals were so healthy. The early-season injury to Niskanen created a sooner-than-expected opportunity for rookie defenseman Madison Bowey, now a lineup regular, and Burakovsky’s injury forced the recall of Stephenson in October.
Stephenson didn’t make the team out of training camp, but since the recall, he’s played well enough to earn a roster spot for the rest of the season. As a result, the Capitals look quite different now than they did in those first five games of the season, the last time the team was injury-free. They’ll have to wait a little longer to see what this iteration of the roster will look like when everyone is finally healthy again.
“Obviously, right now, we have some combinations that have been working,” Backstrom said. “But at the same time, it’s just stuff you’ve got to deal with. Guys get hurt, and you’ve just got to deal with it. It’s always good to try new combinations, too, in case this happens in the playoffs and stuff like that.”
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