It was hard to wipe the smile off Nicklas Backstrom's face Thursday. But that shouldn't be all that surprising considering the Washington Capitals star skated three days in a row, a significant step forward in his recovery from a concussion that has sidelined him since early January.
"As soon as we see him around skating, we're all smiles too," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Just the fact that he's on the ice is huge. We're all pretty happy about that."
But those feelings were quickly overshadowed. About 10 minutes into practice, forwards Alex Ovech-kin and Mike Knuble collided at full speed during a drill.
Ovechkin lay face-down for two minutes and spent a few more on the bench with his head in his hands before walking to the locker room looking dazed.
"Obviously it's the last guy you want to see go down in practice, especially this stretch from here, we need him," forward Keith Aucoin said. "I didn't see it; I just heard it. It didn't sound very good. It was two big bodies hitting each other, and hopefully he's all right."
With Backstrom making progress, the hope is that Thursday won't be seen in retrospect as another rough day in a season full of ups and downs. Coach Dale Hunter insisted Ovechkin was "fine" and that the captain did not suffer a head injury, saying he just had the wind knocked out of him.
But if this season has taught the Caps anything, it's that injuries and adversity can pop up out of nowhere.
"You just got to roll with it. You can't really think a whole lot about it because it's just what happens," Alzner said. "If we were playing in the playoffs and all of a sudden one of the guys went down and we started second-guessing ourselves because we hadn't been through it, then that wouldn't be very good. Now we know we can play with or without."
No one wants to see Ovechkin miss any time, and Hunter said the left wing will play Friday night at the Winnipeg Jets. But the Caps have been wrong about injury situations before. They insisted Backstrom was fine, but symptoms became worse days after he was hit and he hasn't played since. On Feb. 20, Ovechkin sat out the final minutes of a game at Carolina. The team said it was an equipment issue. But he didn't play the next game with what Hunter fnally revealed as a lower-body injury.
The Caps learned how to play without Ovechkin when he missed that game and when he served a three-game suspension earlier.
Forward Jeff Halpern noted, "He's your best player, so obviously it's a big loss," and right wing Troy Brouwer tried not to repeat himself about Ovechkin's value to this team.
"You've got to play hard. He brings a lot of offensive chances; he brings a lot of speed, some physicality," Brouwer said. "Guys got to step up and guys got to play hard. No one's ever going to fill the shoes of Ovechkin."
It's just about impossible for the Caps to make up for Backstrom's loss, which is felt five-on-five, on the power play and on the penalty kill. That's why even the sight of him skating around and flipping pucks into an empty net on an empty sheet of ice Thursday was reason for hope.
There's still no timetable for his recovery, but Brouwer mentioned that seeing Backstrom around and on the ice "brings a little spark" to the Caps.
The 24-year-old center, who before the injury was on pace for his first All-Star Game appearance, has to fight the temptation to rush back but not the temptation to smile about being back on the ice.
"It's so hard," Backstrom said. "You want to be out there so bad. Especially when you see the guys right now, you just want to practice with them. As long as I'm here with the guys, I'm happy."
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