CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Just when they thought they might not have to continue playing lineup roulette to fill in for injured regulars, the Washington Capitals were forced to shuffle their forward units once again less than 20 minutes into their first game back from the Olympic break.
Mikhail Grabovski left the Capitals’ 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday with seven minutes remaining in the first period after aggravating his injured left ankle. On Friday morning, as the rest of the team practiced, the veteran center was on his way back to Washington to be examined by team doctors.
“I don’t know if it’s the same spot, they’re going to check,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Those ankle injuries are difficult, as I think everybody’s seen before, and hopefully it’s not bad.”
While it’s unknown how much time Grabovski could miss, he will sit out Saturday’s game at the Boston Bruins. That means the Capitals head into a grueling March schedule without one of their top two playmaking centers. All 15 of the Capitals’ games this month are against teams no more than four points out of a playoff spot entering Friday night; nine games come against teams whose records are among the NHL’s 10 best, including three against the Bruins.
Grabovski, 30, sat out eight straight games before the Olympics with the ankle sprain he first suffered on Jan. 24 when New Jersey’s Bryce Salvador fell on him. During Grabovski’s first shift Thursday, Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad fell on the same ankle.
The center said he hadn’t completely recovered from the initial ailment a few days prior to the game against Florida, stating he still had “pain, but it’s not like before.” Oates said the coaching staff didn’t have any indication that Grabovski wasn’t ready to return.
“I didn’t get that feeling,” Oates said. “He was flying [in practice], there was contact, and we didn’t see any lingering effects of the injury.”
Losing Grabovski changes the Capitals’ dynamics on offense. After assimilating to Oates’s system in the first few months of the season, Grabovski has been a fixture on the second line and sees regular power-play time.
In Friday’s practice, Oates reconfigured the lines in Grabovski’s absence, with Marcus Johansson and Eric Fehr anchoring the second and third lines, respectively. Johansson is expected to face the Bruins on Saturday after missing Thursday’s game with jet lag following a 20-hour trip from Sweden the day before. While Johansson has played left wing most often for Oates, he played his last five games as a center for Sweden in the Olympics.
“I think the biggest thing is, I’ve gotta get used to the small rink again,” Johansson said. “Every game for us right now is huge. There’s no game we can relax or anything. Feels like every game right now is a must-win game — that’s how we have to see it.”
Fehr, a natural right wing, has grown increasingly comfortable as a center. While he’s bounced around the lineup, Fehr appears to have settled in at third-line center for the time being, playing four games there before the break and remaining in that spot against the Panthers .
Oates “trusts me a little bit to be in the middle position. It’s been getting better every game for me,” Fehr said, adding that having several games in the same spot is beneficial.
“It helps with your mind-set, definitely. It’s a completely different thought process playing center ice as it is playing wing, and if I know I’m going to be there for awhile, you kind of get into a centerman’s mentality,” Fehr said. “So to be able to play that position a couple games in a row you start to feel more comfortable and react a little better.”
However long Grabovski is out, the Capitals will need Fehr, Johansson and fourth-line center Jay Beagle to be comfortable handling increased responsibility, because the team can’t afford a slide with 22 games remaining in the regular season.
“It’s an opportunity for somebody else. The lines shift, and the minutes get spread differently, and that’s why you work on things,” Oates said. “All of a sudden they’re thrust into a role that they might not have expected, but we need you tonight.”
Capitals notes: Martin Erat sat out Friday’s practice after blocking several shots on the penalty kill against Florida. . . . Defenseman Julien Brouillette was reassigned to Hershey and center Casey Wellman was recalled.