There were times in the not-to-distant past when regular visitors to the Washington Capitals dressing room would have to introduce themselves to three or four new faces after almost every game. The Caps were poster boys for rehabilitative medicine.
One Washington general manager even hired a psychiatrist to see whether he could get into the players' heads to find out why there were so many things wrong with their bodies. Needless to say, the players drove him batty.
Having a half dozen or so individuals physically unable to play at any given time was the norm for years. In the late 1990s, the Caps averaged 449 man-games lost to injury for three straight seasons.
This season Washington is on a pace to lose right around 100 man-games to injury or illness, a massive reduction from years past but also a significant improvement from last season, when the figure was just 169.
At the moment there is only one player out with an injury. Right wing Richard Zednik has been sidelined since Nov. 3 with what is believed to be a wrist injury. He has missed five games, and it is possible he could return tonight against Boston.
The NHL does not keep statistics in this category, but Washington has lost just 20 man-games this season, one of the low figures in the league. Some teams are already at four times that figure.
There are two reasons for the team's sudden ability to avoid bad medical news. One is preventive rehabilitation -- working on potential trouble spots before they become troublesome. The second is amazingly simple -- rest.
"Yeah, I think so," coach Glen Hanlon said when asked whether he felt rested players were less likely to be hurt. "We don't structure our days off around trying to prevent injuries. We do it to try to get the maximum amount of energy for each game."
The idea for increased periods of rest is thought to have started with team physiologist Jack Blatherwick in concert with trainer Greg Smith, Hanlon and general manager George McPhee. The program started slowly last season, was deemed a success and is used more frequently this season.
"We're allowing our guys to rest properly between games so we don't have a lot of chronic little injuries that turn into long-term affairs," Smith said. "We don't practice every day. We don't grind the guys into the ice. That's not only reducing the number of injuries, but the guys have more energy for games. Sending guys out with a full tank [of energy] prevents injuries; they're not fatigued and reaching for stuff beyond their physical limits."
That, of course, limits old-fashion lengthy on-ice drills but doesn't prevent shorter, more focused sessions to go along with video workshops.
"This year I think a lot of it is being fortunate and having good character guys, living right away from the rink," Hanlon said. "But we're going to have a game here and there where somebody has the flu, and there's no getting around the serious unfortunate injuries that happen in sports."