Asked after Monday’s practice what he thought of the two games his team won without him this weekend, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin broke into a grin.
“They don’t need me,” he laughed, and everyone, from reporters to Martin Erat at the locker next door, laughed along with him.
The reigning Hart Trophy winner is expected back in the lineup Tuesday night against the Islanders after missing two games with a right shoulder injury, so the Capitals can afford to smile. Washington will need the league’s third-leading goal scorer (in the fewest games, 12, of any player in the top 20) if it hopes to turn the weekend’s stabilizing wins into a much-needed hot streak.
“To win two games, it’s right now scary to go back to the line and mess up the lines, you know?” said Ovechkin, who watched his teammates explode for seven goals against the Flyers before surviving the Panthers in a shootout over the weekend. “We’ll see.”
Ovechkin suffered the unspecified shoulder injury in last week’s game against Vancouver when he was tripped by Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler and fell hard into goaltender Roberto Luongo. The 28-year-old practiced fully Monday after a hard, shooting-filled skate Saturday morning, and said that he and the Capitals’ training staff decided he’s “probably going to play” Tuesday.
Coach Adam Oates wouldn’t commit just yet, though, declaring Ovechkin a “game-time decision” against the Islanders at Verizon Center.
“He feels obviously a lot better, he got through a full practice, and we just make sure [Tuesday] everything’s okay,” Oates said. “I wouldn’t play him if I thought it was something that could linger. . . . It doesn’t make sense to play a guy right now with something that’s lingering, and I don’t think that’s the case.”
While Ovechkin may have been joking about “messing up the lines,” his return does require a reshuffling of trios that had allowed previously underutilized Erat to build a rapport with Nicklas Backstrom as the top line’s left wing, a combination the Capitals had been searching for this year after Marcus Johansson hasn’t clicked quite as well in that slot as he did down the stretch last season.
Erat, a consistent 20-goals-a-year, top-six forward when healthy, had been limited to fourth-line ice time for the first month of the season until moving to the first line after Ovechkin’s injury. He tallied two of his five points this season with two assists Friday, one of which set up a Backstrom goal.
Oates changed his lines for Monday’s practice in anticipation of Ovechkin’s return, dropping Erat back to the fourth line in favor of Brooks Laich at first-line left wing. That move initially garnered confusion before Oates explained that Erat was “a little beat up” after Saturday’s win over the Panthers, and that he wasn’t sure he’d skate for the entire practice, so he slid him off the top line.
Oates wouldn’t commit to Erat at left wing against the Islanders, but the 32-year-old seemed wholly unconcerned about his line placement after practice, saying he’d spoken to his coach prior to practice and that was “all good.”
If Tuesday’s lines do feature Laich as top-line left winger — a move he said he wasn’t expecting before showing up to practice — Ovechkin may wish he’d never made the suggestion that the Capitals could move on without him.
“I saw [Ovechkin] this morning and I saw the lines and I said to him, ‘Ovi, whenever you get the puck, just think: give it to me,’” Laich said.
“He just started laughing. I was obviously joking.”
Capitals note: Forward Jason Chimera tallied a league-leading six points last week on two goals and four assists, a performance that earned him the NHL’s third star of the week honor along with first star Jason Pominville of the Wild and second star Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins. Three of Chimera’s assists came to Joel Ward, who recorded a hat trick Friday night, tying Chimera’s career-high total for helpers in a single game, accomplished first in 2007.