Frequent absences from the lineup have taken a toll on Mike Green’s play this year, preventing him from developing consistency and prolonging his assimilation into the Washington Capitals’ new system.
But now that the 47 games he missed with injuries and a recent three-game suspension are behind him, there’s evidence the 26-year-old defenseman has rediscovered his confidence and is finding his role under Coach Dale Hunter.
“I’m completely, mentally, in a good state right now with the game,” Green said. “It just takes time. You can’t come back and expect to be in the right state of mind to play and be in position all the time and instinctively make the plays. Everything happens so quick that you can’t really think; you’ve just got to play the game, read and react.”
It couldn’t come at a better time for eighth-place Washington as the team makes its final push to secure a playoff berth in its nine remaining regular season games.
Green enters Thursday’s meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center fresh off what was perhaps his most solid overall performance since returning from sports hernia surgery on Feb. 18.
In Monday’s 5-3 victory in Detroit, the Calgary native recorded his first point (a secondary assist) since October and was on the ice for four of the Capitals’ goals but none against.
What stood out, though, was Green’s timing and composure on the ice, whether in routine plays or crisp outlet passes that sparked the offense.
“You can tell, you know when he’s slinging the puck around like that, he’s feeling it a little bit more,” said winger Mike Knuble, who benefited from one of Green’s passes when he scored in the first period against the Red Wings.
While Green didn’t receive a point on the tally, it was his sharp pass from the top of the circle in the Washington end that created the three-on-two rush and led to the goal.
That type of commanding puck movement, along with taking a more simple, defense-first approach, is what Hunter wants to see from the two-time Norris Trophy finalist.
“You don’t judge your game by how many goals and assists you’ve got; it’s how you play,” Hunter said. “And Mike, he moved the puck well. When he was out there, he controlled the game, and that’s what we need from Mike.”
In addition to simply finding his rhythm on the ice after missing the better part of four months with injuries, Green needed time to grow comfortable with Hunter’s style of play. Unlike when he played under former coach Bruce Boudreau, Green no longer is expected to lead end-to-end rushes and score on a nightly basis. While Hunter doesn’t discourage defensemen from jumping up in the play, he makes it clear the first priority must be to not leave the Capitals vulnerable in their own end.
“It’s a complete different mind-set. I had to change the way I thought, how I think the game,” Green said. “It’s taken some time for me to adjust to his system, for sure. Coming back, it was completely different and I finally kind of found my spot on the team and I’m happy with it.”
While Green may not be the same offensive presence he was earlier in his career, he welcomes the new role. That is partly because after years of seeing Washington’s run-and-gun ways dismantled by opponents in the postseason, Green said, he believes the team’s defensive posture under Hunter may pay dividends in the long run.
“It’s more of a playoff-style system,” Green said. “We’ll see how it turns out, and we obviously have got to be better. There’s not as many loopholes in our game that maybe there was before. Maybe the numbers don’t show it, but hopefully that’s the way we need to play.”
Capitals notes: Nicklas Backstrom, who has missed 35 games with a concussion, skated for 35 minutes Wednesday, marking the eighth time in the past nine days he’s been on the ice. While there remains no timetable when he could return to game action, Hunter hinted the Swedish center may be able to take part in practices next week. . . .
Alexander Semin did not participate in the team’s practice Wednesday but is expected to be in the lineup against the Flyers.