- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NEW YORK

His frustration mounting every time a nagging groin injury forced him out of the Washington Capitals’ lineup, Tom Poti approached trainer Greg Smith for prevention advice.

“What’s the worst thing I can do?” Poti asked.

“Take a stride,” Smith replied.

Poti can laugh about Smith’s attempt at gallows humor since he has healed enough to return to his role of logging heavy minutes along the Caps’ blue line. But it also illustrates his tumultuous regular season and how the lower-body injury can be a derail a player.

“Every time I take a stride, it’s a setback,” Poti said. “It’s a tough situation and the only thing you can do to heal it is rest it, which will come in the summertime.”

Part of the rest process included skipping the Caps’ optional noon practice Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

As several teammates were on the ice for the light workout, Poti completed his stretching and treatment routines before heading to the bus. He will play in Wednesday’s Game 4 against the New York Rangers.

“I like to skate, I like to be out on the ice and I’m usually out there - a first guy on, last guy off type of thing,” he said outside the Caps dressing room. “It’s frustrating in that regard, but I have to be smart and we’re expecting to go a long way. I hope it holds up and skate as little as possible on the off days.”

Unfortunately for Poti, there have been a career-high number of off days this season.

Since arriving in the NHL 10 years ago, Poti’s coaches could count on him to play 70 games, contribute 20 assists and play in all situations.

But this season Poti has missed stretches of five, six, 15, one and three games. And his 52 games was a career low.

“It was tough,” he said. “I never felt like I got my rhythm - I would play a bunch of games and then sit out a bunch of games. For a hockey player, it’s nice to get into a groove and I never felt I was able to do that this year.”

The injury was a different experience for Poti, but so is his role with the Caps. Nearly a point-a-game scorer at Boston University, Poti posted campaigns of 12, 11 and 10 goals early in his NHL career.

“I remember playing him in college, and he was unbelievable offensively,” teammate Brian Pothier said. “The offensive side came easy for him as a young guy because his skill level was so much greater than everybody else in high school and college.”

With the Caps, he has been asked to be a defend-first player, while Mike Green is the primary offensive blueliner.

During the opening three games of the Caps-Rangers series, Poti has played 4:50, 6:27 and 5:37 on the penalty kill.

“He’s really made his mark in the NHL as a really steady defenseman,” Pothier said. “He has a tremendous stick, is really strong and really smart - that’s a pretty good combination to have.”

Said Poti: “I always knew I could play well defensively but my focus coming into the league was always offense, offense. Now it’s defense, defense. … We have plenty of guys who can score goals.”

Poti still knows how to find the net, though - he scored his first postseason goal to finish off the 4-0 shutout in Game 3.

At the Caps’ end of the ice, Poti has been part of a group that has limited the Rangers to one goal. The Caps are 10-for-10 on the penalty kill in the last two games.

“Nobody’s happy to be injured, and it wasn’t easy to see Tommy frustrated,” defenseman Milan Jurcina said. “But he’s a professional, and he knew what it took and what he needed to do to get back.”

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