Eric Fehr has always wanted to be a top-six forward on an NHL team, and for parts of this season the 27-year old has assumed that role for the Washington Capitals. A natural right wing, Fehr has shifted to the left side at the behest of Coach Adam Oates, adjusting to new sight lines and using his backhand more all while playing with an array of linemates.
On Sunday night, when Washington earned its fourth straight win over Tampa Bay, Fehr’s latest promotion meant skating on the team’s second line with center Mike Ribeiro and wing Troy Brouwer. But even he couldn’t ignore the circumstances that have led to his good fortune.
“We’ve got some really good players out of the lineup right now, and you’re playing with fire when that happens,” Fehr said. “It’s not easy to win games in this league at the best of times.”
Washington has righted itself in recent weeks after a slow start to this lockout-shortened season, reeling off eight wins in its past 10 games to move back atop the Southeast Division standings. But with just nine games remaining before the NHL playoffs begin, including Tuesday night’s tilt at Montreal, the Capitals suddenly have been forced to overcome a rash of injuries as they make their postseason push.
Last Thursday, left wing Brooks Laich left Washington’s 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders with an injury that is causing discomfort in his groin, a significant symptom considering he missed the first 28 games of the regular season because of a groin injury. Oates told reporters Sunday that Laich will visit with groin specialist Michael Brunt, who performed sports hernia surgeries on defenseman Mike Green and forward Joel Ward last year, in St. Louis on Tuesday.
Two days after Laich went down, last week’s trade deadline acquisition, wing Martin Erat, suffered what appeared to be a left leg injury when he was hit into the boards by Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the first period of Saturday’s win over Florida. Then Ward left Sunday’s game in the third period after a slap shot by Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo hit his left knee, although Oates indicated after the contest that Ward’s ailment wasn’t serious.
Laich is “a good guy on the faceoffs. He’s smart positionally. He’s one of those players that just does the little things right so it hurts when he’s not there,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It would be a little bit easier if Erat was still healthy.”
But the consensus in the locker room Sunday is that the Capitals are better equipped to handle a wave of injuries than they were at the beginning of the season, when they struggled with having to learn the tendencies of a new coach on the fly thanks to a one-week training camp.
Washington now boasts the NHL’s best power play, and Fehr noted opponents “are scared to take penalties against us,” which has helped disguise some of the team’s deficiencies of late.
Star winger Alex Ovechkin has also been on a tear and is currently tied for the league lead in goals (25). His play has been a boon for linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, who have combined for five goals and 23 assists over the past 10 games, and the Capitals will likely need to rely on more secondary scoring if Laich and Erat both miss an extended amount of time.
“Every position, we’re better and working harder, and that’s the key,” Backstrom said. “You’ve got to chip in for each other.”
The Capitals are also more comfortable with Oates and his system, to the point that the coach said Sunday the team hasn’t talked about it over the last month. Fehr has noticed the speed of the game picking up because he and his teammates are reacting to plays rather than thinking, “Where should I be?”
Oates, meanwhile, has provided them with plenty of days off during this whirlwind, 99-day season — including Monday — because he can’t help but notice “guys are dropping like flies” around the league. But he still left Sunday’s postgame news conference with a smile on his face, his mind focused on his team’s surge rather than the mounting injuries that it must conquer in the coming days.
“It’s a world of difference. We believe in ourselves no matter what the score is,” said Fehr, when asked to compare now to the beginning of the season. “Feels a lot like the teams in the past, where we can be down one or two and we’re not fazed by it. We feel we can come back. You can definitely feel there’s a little swagger in the dressing room.”