- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

From Nov.14, 1999, through last season’s finale, center Michael Nylander was in his team’s lineup every night. The streak, which endured through two teams and five coaches had reached an NHL-high 310 games when the Washington Capitals’ 2003 season ended.

But on Oct.1, Nylander’s right leg was broken when he was slammed into the rear boards at Piney Orchard on a check by teammate Nolan Yonkman, who’s five inches and 47 pounds larger. The initial prognosis was that Nylander would miss four to six weeks. After surgery, the timetable was adjusted to eight to 12 weeks. Tonight, 21 weeks after he was hurt, Nylander will return to the lineup when the Caps visit the Florida Panthers.

“Absolutely, I never thought it would be this long,” Nylander said. “But in mid-December, the bone was only 15 to 20 percent healed. That was unbelievably frustrating. Then [the doctors] said they thought it would heal in the next three to four weeks, but nothing really improved. I would work out here every day, but after awhile, you get bored. Nothing was happening. There were questions in my head for a long time. I didn’t know when or if I would play this year. Did I need surgery [again]? If I did, I knew my season would be over and I didn’t want to do that.”

Finally early this month, the leg was immobilized again. Nylander wasn’t allowed to exercise for two weeks. That rest and shock wave treatment to accelerate the bone’s renewal apparently did the trick. Nylander began skating on his own again, then returned to practice last week. And now, after taking some light contact from teammates, he’s ready.

“It has been a real learning experience,” Nylander said. “But the last 10 days have been lots of fun. Every day there has been improvement. It feels good. I’m happy I can play. You can practice all you want, but to get in game shape, you have to play games.”

Coach Glen Hanlon plans to work Nylander in slowly with the hope of him soon reclaiming the No.2 center spot behind All-Star Robert Lang. The sweet-passing Nylander, acquired from Chicago for forwards Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin on Nov.2, 2002, averaged 19 goals and 60 points the last three seasons and had a superb plus-38 defensive rating. With center Dainius Zubrus also returning tonight after missing most of six games with a strained chest muscle, only defenseman John Gruden (concussion) remains sidelined. The last-place Caps are the healthiest they’ve been since late October.

“It’s going to be terrific to have Michael back,” Hanlon said. “But we’re not going to push it. He might not even play 10 minutes tonight.”

Nylander returns 11 days before the NHL trade deadline, giving him up to six games to show possible suitors how well he has recovered. Such contenders as Detroit, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Dallas and Montreal could be interested in the 31-year-old Swede, who can be a free agent at the end of the season and is two years younger than Lang, whose $5million salary may well prove too much for many tempted by his NHL-leading 74 points.

Note — The Caps last visited Florida five weeks ago tonight. That was the day they traded five-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers. Caps career scoring leader Peter Bondra was dealt to Ottawa 26 days later. Now Lang, Nylander, goalie Olie Kolzig and defensemen Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt wonder each day who’s next to go. Dallas, New Jersey, Toronto and Vancouver could be pondering Witt, who’s less skilled than Gonchar but is more rugged, nearly a year younger at 29 and half the price at $1.75million.

Gonchar and Witt will both be restricted free agents this summer.

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