- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2011

The Capitals have gotten used to life without key players. Though injuries to Nick Backstrom, Mike Green, Jason Arnott and both goaltenders have taken their toll on the roster, the team hasn’t dropped too far in the standings.

But now the Capitals will have to learn to play without their captain, leading scorer and face of the franchise, as Alex Ovechkin will miss seven to 10 days starting with Tuesday night’s game at the Philadelphia Flyers with an undisclosed “nagging ailment.”

“He wants to feel better. He doesn’t like waking up every morning and feeling that he has to go through an hour of just doing stuff to get ready to practice or play,” coach Bruce Boudreau said Monday. “He wants to feel healthy. The playoffs are very important to him, and he wants to be at his best when we arrive there.”

That’s the idea — to get Ovechkin, Arnott and Green back for April 13 or thereabouts when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin and the Caps try to put last season’s first-round exit behind them. But for at least the next week they must survive without the man who is by far their leading scorer with 29 goals and 48 assists.

“He’s a big part of the team. We gotta regroup,” defenseman Scott Hannan said. “We’ve dealt with some injuries all season, and it’ll be good to have some guys have to step up. It’s part of hockey. We’re gonna lose guys; teams have done it all year, and we gotta come back.”

As owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog, “No one feels sorry for you so we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.” Boudreau said the same thing, pointing to the Penguins being without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the Rangers being without Chris Drury and Marc Staal. Tuesday night’s opponent, Philadelphia, is already without arguably its best player in defenseman Chris Pronger.

What it means in the short term for the Caps is opportunity for other guys, like Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich, to step to the forefront as Jay Beagle and possibly even D.J. King fill out the bottom of the lineup.

“As players, you don’t want to see guys go out — you don’t want your top guys going out. But at the same time, we gotta be excited a little bit because you never know,” winger Mike Knuble said. “It’s a chance for you to help make a difference.”

The Caps’ new system certainly helps, Knuble said, as one player can be replaced easier because there is a team-wide commitment to defensive hockey.

But it goes without saying that Ovechkin’s loss is a big one. Boudreau was even asked whether the superstar left wing would be in the lineup if this were a playoff game and responded: “I don’t know.” The coach described Ovechkin as “sore” on multiple occasions and said he’s “probably got more aches and pains than the normal guy” because of his physical nature and the amount of hits he takes.

And yet Ovechkin has yet to miss a game this season, battling through injuries like lots of other NHL players.

“You have to kinda keep your mouth shut and just kinda keep playing,” Knuble said. “He just kept showing up and playing and trying as best he could. He’s our captain — he’s gonna show up and play as hard as he can.”

But with nine games and three weeks left until the playoffs begin, everyone around the Caps locker room agreed that this was the best time — at least better than mid-April — for Ovechkin to sit out so that he can go full-tilt later on. And with Arnott and Green already out, players understand there’s pressure to win anyway.

“Obviously with a loss of Ovi, it’s tough,” Beagle said. “And it’s gonna be a really good trial of our character.”

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