- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

It was an up-and-down December for Washington Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier.

First there was a untimely turnover against New Jersey on Dec. 7 that partially led to a two-game benching by coach Bruce Boudreau. Then he broke his thumb against Montreal on Dec. 20.

Oh, and he has also played some of his best hockey since joining the Caps, scoring four goals — including one each in his first two games back from the thumb injury — and solidifying his play on the team’s defensive end.

“It has been a little strange,” Pothier said. “You never want to get scratched, but I really wasn’t sure why I wasn’t playing as I should be or could have been. Sometimes I think about it too much instead of just going out and playing. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort.”

Added defense partner Jeff Schultz: “For sure [he’s been better.] Any time you get taken out of the lineup, you kind of get that sense of urgency that you want to get back in the lineup and prove that you should have stayed in. I think since he’s come back he has really stepped it up.”

After the game against the Canadiens, a team spokesman said Pothier was “week-to-week” with a broken thumb.

That designation has normally been withheld for players who were not expected back soon, like Boyd Gordon when he broke his hand and with Chris Clark’s groin problem.

Pothier missed one game. He returned to the lineup Dec. 26 against Tampa Bay, and he scored goals against the Lightning and the next night in Pittsburgh.

While Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had the primary assists on Pothier’s tallies, he said the team’s trainer, Greg Smith, deserved one as well. Smith used a substance that is similar to Orthoplast to make a hard splint to cover Pothier’s thumb. The material begins as a gel-like substance before it is heated and molded, then it hardens like plastic after it cools.

“It was one of those things with the location of the break,” Pothier said. “Greg Smith did a great job of creating something that alleviated the pain. We just tried to find a way to make it feel comfortable. Now, if I get slashed or my stick gets lifted hard or I am competing in the corners, it hurts. But not so much that I can’t play.”

After a breakout 2005-06 season with Ottawa when he had five goals, 35 points and was a plus-29, Pothier signed a four-year, $10 million contract with Washington. Last season, he had to adjust to increased playing time with the Caps.

He led the team’s defensemen with 28 points, but he was also a minus-11. Pothier has tied his career high with five goals this season, but his biggest improvement the past couple of weeks since the benching might be in his own end.

Pothier is a puck-handling defenseman — a high-risk, high-reward guy who does not want to be content with chipping the puck into the neutral zone or banging it off the boards. At times, that has led to costly turnovers, but he has done a better job of avoiding them in recent games.

“It seems like he is playing a lot more at ease out there,” goaltender Olie Kolzig said. “He’s not trying to always make the big play. He’s making quicker decisions.”

Added Boudreau: “I think he’s competed really hard and he’s played really well. He’s winning battles now and he’s more determined. He’s becoming the player that everyone thought of when we signed him, or he was always that player and he went through a lapse and he had to wake up and get it going again.”

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