In the two games since forward Brooks Laich was knocked out of the lineup with a groin injury, the Washington Capitals have made the best of his absence and captured back-to-back wins. The key, Coach Adam Oates says, has been the group’s improving ability to function within one system regardless of who is where on any given night.
“I keep reinforcing that there’s only a certain way to play,” Oates said. “You’ve got to give yourself those chances because it’s an 82-game schedule. A lot of different things can happen. We’re seeing that on a night-to-night basis. They all know that. They’ve just got to be reminded of that.”
Laich is expected to miss a third consecutive game Tuesday when the Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes. His latest groin injury is related to the nagging problems that limited him to nine games last season and ultimately required abdominal surgery.
The 30-year-old forward hasn’t skated since playing Nov. 27 against Ottawa, but he skipped the skate that morning with tightness in his groin, offering the first indication something was amiss.
“Hopefully it’s minor, it’s not ongoing,” Oates said, “And we’re going to do our best to make sure it doesn’t get aggravated and it’s not continuous.”
Having Laich healthy and in the lineup this season presented more options for Oates with the forwards than were available last season. Would Laich play at left wing, where Oates often envisions him, or at center, given the abundance of wingers? Oates has acknowledged it has been a challenge to find the right spot that maximizes each player.
Before his injury, Laich moved from left wing on the second line to center on the third when Oates reconfigured the second unit. That move brought out spontaneous chemistry between Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski, who are playing together for the first time. While it’s a small sample size, it’s also the first time this year than any particular second-line combination has clicked so quickly and in all zones.
Part of it may be Fehr’s motivation to stay in the mix after sitting out nine games before Oates last shuffled the lines, but he sees this initial success as a sustainable trend.
“I feel I’m playing the same way I was before I got pulled out of the lineup. It’s a little bit more noticeable because I’m almost doubling up my minutes right now, but I honestly think I’m playing the same way,” said Fehr, who has two goals, three points and 13 shots on goal in four games since returning to the lineup. He has also spent more time on the penalty kill.
When Laich was sidelined, it opened an opportunity for Jay Beagle, who sat out 18 consecutive games and hadn’t played in more than a month before a game against Montreal on Friday. While he doesn’t have the same offensive upside as Laich, Beagle gives that third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward an even more clear-cut identity as a group that forechecks hard and tries to wear down an opposing squad.
In two games, Beagle has brought a burst of energy and been the only player with more than five faceoffs in both games to win more than 50 percent of his draws.
“When I get a chance to get back in the lineup, I want to make the most of it and prove that I make this team better,” Beagle said. “I always want to make an impact. If that’s hitting, bringing energy, penalty kill, hopefully starting to get a little offensive production going.”
He has earned the praise of Oates in the process.
“He looks very calm out there, quite honestly, under control with his skating, and that’s one of the things I’ve been asking of him,” Oates said. “They’ve had good success; the line played well.”
Whenever Laich returns, it will shake things up once more. But if the Capitals can build off the momentum and cohesion they established over the weekend, then perhaps it can make for another smooth transition.
Capitals notes: Washington placed goaltender Michal Neuvirth on injured reserve retroactive to when he injured his right leg by stepping on a puck Friday. The earliest he would be eligible to return to the lineup is Saturday against Nashville. . . . The Capitals informed Team Canada they would not loan them rookie forward Tom Wilson for the world junior championships Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 in Malmo, Sweden.