After spending the lion’s share of Tuesday traveling back from Vancouver and a four-game journey out west, the Capitals spent Wednesday morning practicing at Kettler Capitals Iceplex and shaking off the vestiges of jet lag.
They also made a bit of news with some injuries and some roster moves.
Most noteworthy was the absence of Caps captain Alex Ovechkin – he of the 10 goals in 12 games thus far this season – from Wednesday’s practice session. Ovechkin has an upper body injury that occurred in the first period of Washington’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night at Rogers Arena, according to Caps’ coach Adam Oates.
“I think in the first period sometime,” says Oates, when asked when the Ovechkin injury occurred. “He was sore; he told me he was a little sore. I think as the game went on he probably got a little sorer. [Tuesday] was an off day for travel, so he is getting checked out today.”
Now in his ninth season in the league, Ovechkin has missed only 21 games during his NHL career. Two of those were after the death of his grandfather early in the 2008-09 season, and seven came as the result of three separate NHL suspensions.
Ovechkin has missed only a dozen games because of injury during his NHL career, and his longest continuous stretch of time missed because of injury came in November 2009 when he missed six games because of a shoulder injury.
In the 21 games it has played without Ovechkin in the lineup, Washington has compiled a record of 11-8-2. The Caps were shutout in two of those losses, and they outscored opponents by a combined 71-66 in the 21 games. The team has averaged 3.38 goals per game with Ovechkin out of the lineup.
Nicklas Backstrom centered a line with Martin Erat on the left and Eric Fehr in Ovechkin’s customary spot on the right at Monday’s practice. The Caps will know more about Ovechkin’s status on Thursday, but if he is unable to play on Friday when the team visits Philadelphia, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fehr get moved from center back to his natural spot on the right wing in the captain’s absence.
“It’s definitely somewhere I’d be a lot more comfortable than I am right now,” says Fehr, when queried about the possibility of moving back to the right side. “Obviously I’ve played there my whole life so I know what I have to do there. I know my responsibilities a lot better, and that’s the way my game is built. I definitely feel comfortable going back there, but if that’s not the case I’ll just continue to work on getting better as a center every day.”
Fehr also notes that a move from the bottom six – where he has played thus far this season – to the top six would require some a slight mindset tweak.
“It’s a much different game playing on the top line,” explains Fehr. “It’s a lot less dumping and chasing and more making plays. My job would be to get it to Marty and Backy and to just try to get open and let those guys work with the puck. I’m not the guy lugging the puck around the ice; I like to give it to the playmakers. If I do get an opportunity to play with them, I’d definitely be looking forward to it.”
Washington also placed defenseman John Erskine on long-term injured reserve (retroactive to Oct. 26) on Wednesday, a move that requires him to be out of the lineup for 10 games and 24 days. He’ll be eligible to return to the lineup on Nov. 20 when Washington hosts Pittsburgh.
Erskine had offseason knee surgery, and Oates believes that ailment may have led to the upper body injury with which he is currently sidelined.
“I would say personally that the knee surgery in the summer probably set him back where he couldn’t train,” notes Oates, “and then the upper body stuff is probably compensations based on that. It’s kind of a standard thing that you start favoring something, or it’s not as strong as it should be and you start hurting everywhere else. He needs to take some time and get healthy.
“I don’t think he has been 100 percent all year. It shows what a warrior he is and how much he wants to compete and we really need him. But I told him we need him at 100 percent.”
The injury to the left-handed Erskine and the continued absence of lefty defenseman Jack Hillen leaves the Caps thin on the southpaw side of the backline, so Washington addressed that issue by recalling defenseman Dmitry Orlov from AHL Hershey on Wednesday. The Caps also recalled center Michael Latta from Hershey. Pivot Jay Beagle also missed Wednesday's practice; his absence was because of illness.
Orlov recorded six points (one goal, five assists) in six games with the Bears this season. He was impressive in a 60-game stint with the Capitals as a rookie in 2011-12, but missed a few months of action with a concussion last season, an injury incurred while playing for Hershey during the lockout.
With 65 career games played in the NHL, the 22-year-old Orlov instantly becomes Washington’s second most experienced left-handed defenseman. Only Karl Alzner (275 career NHL games) has more experience among the quartet of lefty defensemen currently residing on the Caps’ roster.
The recall of Orlov doesn’t guarantee he’ll be in the lineup on Friday against the Flyers. Along with Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Alexander Urbom, Orlov is one of four lefties vying for the three lefty spots in Oates’ lineup on a night-to-night basis.
“It’s past, it was two years ago,” shrugs Orlov, of his strong 2011-12 rookie showing. “Right now it’s a new year, new coach here, and a different system. Of course I know I can play in the NHL. I need to keep going and be strong in my end.”
If he can be strong in his own end, it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup. Most of the Caps’ issues early in the season are related to a tendency to spend too much time at their own end of the ice because they can’t consistently move it up the ice cleanly, quickly and efficiently.
“It still has to be better,” says Oates of his team’s play in the defensive zone. “We’re going to score goals; that’s not going to be our problem. To win in this league on a regular basis, you’ve got to keep them out [of your net].
“The better we get in our own end, it’s obviously going to help. It will help the goalies and show up at the other [end of the ice]. I would say we played better in our own end, but it still took us too long to get out of our end. And because of that, your guys are tired by the time they get out there.”
Speaking of tired, the Caps caught a 7:45 a.m. bus from their Vancouver hotel and landed back at Dulles just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, making for a long and arduous day of travel. It’s good that they don’t play again until Friday.
“You just take a mental day to kind of relax,” says Caps defenseman Mike Green, “get your fluids back in you and get some sleep. That’s about all you can do, and think about the next game. Today was a good practice and we’ll be ready to take off again tomorrow.”