As the Washington Capitals returned to practice Monday to begin preparation for a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets the following night, some of the players noticed their opponents watching from behind the glass. The Blue Jackets players and coaches were scheduled to skate later in the afternoon at the facility but first gathered to catch a glimpse of an opponent that looked vastly different from the one that visited Columbus in late January.
The Capitals were without captain Alex Ovechkin, who didn’t take part in the optional skate Monday while he rested a lingering lower-body injury, and they were without center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is ailing from an upper-body injury suffered from a blindside hit during a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
And if the Blue Jackets looked close enough at the players on the ice, they could notice the toll that this season had taken on Washington’s lineup. There was star defenseman John Carlson, who had swapped his blue noncontact sweater for a normal white jersey Monday for the first time since December, signaling that he was nearing a return from a terrifying head injury. And there were goaltender Darcy Kuemper and defenseman Nick Jensen, gingerly returning for practice after both had missed Sunday’s game with upper-body injuries. All told, the Capitals are limping toward the finish line of this difficult season that has featured 390 man-games lost, a metric that helps highlight a team’s injury woes.
“I haven’t played with John [Carlson] since last May. There’s a lot of that going on, but that’s hockey,” said forward Tom Wilson, who returned in the middle of the campaign after offseason knee surgery and then missed several more weeks with a separate leg injury. “You look around the league, that goes on. Maybe not as bad as we’ve had, but you still try to find a way. There’s no excuses.”
Kuznetsov, Kuemper and Jensen are listed as day-to-day with upper-body injuries, the team said Monday. While Carlson’s upgrade to a white jersey — which made him fair game for contact during practice — was scheduled in his rehabilitation plan, it remains unclear whether he will be ready to return to the lineup Tuesday night against the Blue Jackets. Since Carlson’s injury Dec. 23, the Capitals have dealt with a revolving door on the blue line, which has been further decimated by multiple injuries and the trades of two veterans, and have relied on green defenseman called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa.
Sunday’s loss to Minnesota underscored the depth of Washington’s medical issues. Ovechkin wasn’t cleared to play until an hour before puck drop because of his lower-body injury. Kuemper was ruled out after getting hurt during practice a day earlier, which elevated Charlie Lindgren to the starting spot in net and forced the Capitals to call up Zach Fucale from Hershey to back him up. Jensen sat out a second consecutive game. And Wild defenseman Matt Dumba’s hit on Kuznetsov, which came early in the third period, left the Capitals fuming after the loss — and left Kuznetsov, who wore a wrap around his right shoulder afterward, questionable for Tuesday’s game against Columbus.
That Carlson, Kuemper and Jensen all took part in Monday’s optional skate was an encouraging sign. The Capitals have just one healthy right-handed defenseman at the moment, which has forced the team to move 26-year-old Gabriel Carlsson, who was only called up from Hershey this month, from the left side to the right. He has little experience at that position, he said, and it has reversed his position on breaking pucks out and delivering checks. But it has also afforded him a sense of freedom offensively; playing from the right side opens up new angles at the net and allows him to put his stick in different spots while looking to score.
“It’s little adjustments. You end up in a little bit different situations,” Carlsson said. “It’s a little bit harder, but I feel more and more comfortable. It’s getting better.”
The nature of Washington’s ongoing attrition has left Carlsson prepared to play at a moment’s notice. He’s also fighting for another contract. Carlsson followed a similar path last year when he played with the Blue Jackets, where he was in and out of a lineup constantly dealing with injuries.
He didn’t have an opportunity to face Columbus when these teams last met in January, but as the Blue Jackets scouted the wounded Capitals on Monday, some of them noticed their old teammate and waved at Carlsson. He waved back. He didn’t know if he might be in the lineup against them Tuesday, but he practiced as if he would.
“I was kind of in the same situation last year in Columbus. I’m kind of used to that,” he said. “You stay in the moment and don’t think too much in the future.”