On his 22nd birthday, of all nights, Andre Burakovsky dropped to one knee to block a slap shot by Detroit’s Brendan Smith, and the puck clipped Burakovsky’s right hand, which was wrapped around his stick as he was kneeling. Call it an unfortunate play for the Washington Capitals, who largely have enjoyed a lot of luck this season.
Burakovsky suffered the injury in Thursday’s 6-3 victory over the Red Wings. On Friday afternoon, Coach Barry Trotz announced that Burakovsky will be out of the lineup until mid- to late March. The Capitals seemingly caught a break with him not needing surgery, but for the NHL’s healthiest team, Trotz said this extended absence would be “a good test.”
“It’s part of the game,” Trotz said. “That’s part of the process. You can’t control that. People get hurt in this game. We’ve been very fortunate not to have a lot of injuries.”
The Capitals have lost just 19 man-games to injury this season; no other team has lost fewer than 70. The longest any Capital has been out so far is the seven games T.J. Oshie missed with a shoulder injury. Defenseman John Carlson missed six games with an undisclosed “lower-body” injury. Burakovsky could be out for roughly 20.
Washington was no stranger to injuries last season, when the team most notably was without defenseman Brooks Orpik for 40 games and Carlson for 26 . Center Jay Beagle broke his hand and missed 24 games. The team still won the Presidents’ Trophy with the regular season’s best record.
In 52 games in 2016-17, Burakovsky has scored 11 goals and contributed 18 assists, rebounding from a poor start. After the Swedish winger’s 26-game goal-scoring drought, Trotz scratched him for three games in December. Since then, Burakovsky has posted nine goals and 10 assists in 25 games playing with center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly.
The improved play of that third line has been an encouraging sign for the Capitals, who felt they lacked such necessary secondary scoring last season. Eller, Burakovsky and Connolly have combined for 21 goals in the past 16 games. With Burakovsky out, Eller moved into Burakovsky’s role on the second power-play unit during Friday’s practice, and Trotz said that rookie forward Zach Sanford, who was recalled earlier this week, will play against Anaheim on Saturday. Sanford has played in 20 games with Washington, notching one assist.
“He’s obviously a big piece for this team, especially as well as he’s played the last month or two,” Eller said of Burakovsky. “He’s going to be missed, but I think Sanford or whoever is going to fill that spot is capable of contributing. In the big scheme of things, I think we’ll be all right.”
Said Sanford: “No one likes to see a teammate or anyone get hurt, but I think this will be big for me to hopefully step in and keep playing well and help the team keep winning.”
Saturday’s game is the Capitals’ last before six days off, and Trotz said the team would evaluate its options during that time. Another candidate to replace Burakovsky temporarily is rookie winger Jakub Vrana, who has a similar skillset to Burakovsky, with speed and an elite shot. Vrana has one goal and two assists in 12 games.
“We’re going to let Zach have that first crack at it tomorrow, and then we’ll go from there,” Trotz said. “We haven’t really made any long-term decisions.”
Minor injuries are seemingly starting to mount for the Capitals, so the upcoming break will be welcome. Trotz recently admitted that several players are weathering “nicks.” Beagle had a maintenance day Friday and didn’t practice. Connolly seemed to hurt his right ankle just before scoring a goal Thursday night. He didn’t miss a shift, but his ankle was wrapped after the game, and he walked with a slight limp. Both are expected to play Saturday.
But for a team that had been the picture of stability to this point, Washington now has to deal with its first extended shakeup.
“It’ll give us a little adversity to go through,” Trotz said. “For Andre, obviously, he started really ramping it up, but when he comes back, he’s going to be fresh, and he’s going to be excited. I know he’ll get back to playing the way he can.”