Fourteen years after his NHL debut and just over two months shy of his 36th birthday, Tom Poti feels like he still has some unfinished business.
The Caps defenseman missed the entire 2011-12 season with a fractured pelvis that he originally believed was a recurrence of a nagging groin injury that shelved him for most of the 2010-11 season. Poti played just 21 games in 2010-11 and last laced up the blades for NHL action nearly two years ago, on Jan. 12, 2011 against the Lightning in Tampa Bay.
For most of the last two years, it was believed that Poti was suffering from a groin injury that wasn’t responding to treatment. The actual nature of the injury didn’t become clear until well after it was incurred.
“It was a couple of months, maybe like two and a half months,” says Poti. [Caps head athletic trainer Greg Smith] said, ‘This thing is just not getting right. It doesn’t seem like anything we do to treat the normal groin stuff is helping.’ They sent me to a specialist out in St. Louis that did some kind of special MRI or something. We went that route and he discovered a small fracture on the pelvis. That was that. I just made it worse by trying to come back on it.”
Poti has no difficulty recalling almost exactly when the original injury took place.
“It was one game against New Jersey,” recalls Poti of the ailment that has sidelined him for so long. “I crashed into the boards with I think it was [Devils forward Dainius] Zubrus. It was the first shift of the second period or something; it was a real clean sheet of ice. I kind of went flying into the boards and I felt a little pop. But I figured I just hurt my groin again because I had hurt it a couple of times that year. So I just figured it was that.
“I played through it, played that whole game. That night and the next morning it just felt horrible. I figured it was a groin problem and dealt with it as a groin problem. I kept trying to come back that year and it just never worked out.”
A quick scroll through the videotape of Washington’s four meetings with New Jersey that season reveals the exact play on which Poti suffered the fractured pelvis.
In the second minute of the second period of an Oct. 9, 2010 game against New Jersey – the Capitals’ home opener that season – Zubrus dumped a puck into the right wing corner of the Washington end. Poti and Zubrus raced back to retrieve, arriving simultaneously. Zubrus’ left leg got caught in Poti’s right leg, and the Caps defenseman lost his edge and fell to the ice on his backside, then careened into the boards in a somewhat spread-eagled state. Poti got up right away, but skated back into the play somewhat gingerly.
Poti’s injury came in Washington’s second game of the 2010-11 season, and it came after he spent the summer recovering from a frightening and ghoulish eye injury sustained in Game 6 of Washington’s first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens in the spring of 2010. That eye injury came half an inch from ending Poti’s career.
After the Oct. 9, 2010 injury, Poti missed the next three games, then played in two games. Then he missed eight games, then played in one. Then he missed six games, then played in four. Then he missed two games, then played in nine. Then he missed three games, then played in two. Then he missed one game, then played in one. Then missed the remainder of the regular season, the last 38 games.
The fits and starts were frustrating, but Poti was hoping to be a part of something very special.
“I knew we had a good team,” says Poti of the 2010-11 Caps. “I thought we had the team to do it all that year, so I kept skating and kept myself in shape just in case we made a long run or something and they needed me. I did more damage to myself by trying to come back that year than I should have. My stubbornness kept me from maybe playing last year. But you don’t have many chances at the Stanley Cup. It was something I wanted to do and I don’t have any regrets from doing it. But it definitely did set me back.”
It set him back, but now he is back, or at least he hopes to be back. Months of rest were followed by months of grueling rehab and some acupuncture. Finally last August, Poti stepped back onto the ice. He’s been working up to a return since, and now he’s going to take a run at earning a roster spot after two full years on the sidelines. It may be a longshot, but you won’t convince Poti of that.
“It’s felt good,” he says. “The last maybe week and a half to two weeks I’ve had no pain at all. I’ve been able to do everything I’ve wanted to do on the ice. It’s just a matter of me getting comfortable out there on the ice again and getting the rust off.
“This week will be a big test for me. I’m up for the challenge.”
Two years is a long time. Did Poti ever think he was finished?
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he admits, “but I never wanted to give up. Hockey is my passion. I still love it to this day. I said to myself I am going to do everything possible to try to get back on the ice and try to play. That’s what I did the last two years.”
Poti never gave up on himself, and he credits the Caps for hanging in there with him.
“They were unbelievable,” says Poti of the Capitals. “Greg Smith the trainer was really good with me. I talked to him probably every couple of weeks over the last couple of years, telling me what to do and what to try. And I was keeping him informed [as to] what I was doing.
“[General manager] George [McPhee] has always said all along ‘If you can get back and play and help us it will be great for us and great for you.’ They never closed the book on me. I appreciate that a lot.”
Rest was crucial in order for the fracture to finally heal, and then months of rehab were required to get the rearguard back into sufficient condition to hit the ice.
“I think once I started skating this year in August,” he says, “just going out there by myself, it felt a lot better than it did in the previous year. Just that gave me a little bit of hope and I was excited to keep pushing it. But I was also a little bit cautious not to do too much too soon. I took the right steps and built myself up to this point.”
Just for Poti to be here at camp competing for a roster berth is something few would have figured on when the lockout started. If he’s able to make it back into the lineup, he’s an instant favorite for the Masterton Trophy.
He’s happy to be back, and his teammates are happy to see him.
“They were excited to see me,” says Poti of his teammates. “You guys know how [Jason Chimera] is. He was yelling his head off and everything and stuff like that. It’s so much fun to be around the guys. That’s something that you really do miss when you don’t have that.”
“That guy adds a ton to this team if he’s healthy and playing,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “I think we’re all really excited that he’s here. Just keep our fingers crossed that it’s all done now, that injury that he had.”
When Poti suffered the eye injury in the playoffs against Montreal, Alzner was recalled from AHL Hershey to take his place. A rookie at the time, Alzner got his first taste of NHL playoff action in Game 7 against the Canadiens that spring.
Now the Caps are hoping they might have Poti and Alzner on the same blueline corps, a group that becomes much deeper if Poti’s comeback has legs.
From 1999-00 through 2009-10, Poti averaged better than 20 minutes a night in the NHL for 10 straight seasons. A quiet but steady contributor on the backline, Poti helped solidify a young Washington blueline when he signed with the Caps as a free agent on July 1, 2007. He was a staple on the team’s penalty-killing unit and he also saw occasional power play duty.
“It definitely helped to know I had their backing,” says Poti of the Capitals, “that they said, ‘If you can get ready and come back and play we’ll make room for you if you can do it.’ It was huge.
"I never closed the book on myself, either. I could have sat at home and collected a paycheck and been happy. But hockey is what I love to do. It’s in my blood and I want to play for as long as I can.”