The Washington Capitals know Brooks Laich. They know his strengths, his weaknesses and what he brings to the team.
“He’s one of our hardest workers. He’s one of our most consistent players every night,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s that guy that always wants to be on the ice, always wants to be involved. Maybe, sometimes to a fault, he tries to do too much.”
Trying to do it all is one of Laich’s calling cards. But playing through a groin injury isn’t about toughness or stubbornness.
As a result, the Caps have spent much of the season without Laich. On Tuesday, he missed his 34th game of the year, and there’s no telling when the 29-year-old forward will return.
“We miss him quite a bit, that’s for sure,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “This team looks to Brooksie for a lot of things, a lot more than just on-ice performance. … It’s a difficult time without him.”
That’s easier said than done.
“He plays those big minutes for us,” left wing Marcus Johansson said. “Of course we miss him, but there’s not much we can do about it.”
Despite returning March 19 after missing the first 28 games of the season, Laich might not have been 100 percent with a groin injury suffered four months earlier while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout.
Laich played nine games, including at least 19 minutes in three of them, but that stretch taught the Caps a lesson.
“We don’t want to do what we did last time,” Oates said. “We want to make sure that [he’s] 100 percent.”
Laich said he was 100 percent last month and expressed no doubt about back-to-back games or a heavy workload. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the team, at least for the time being, ruled out surgery, which would require a recovery period of four to six weeks.
“You know Brooks, he’s hard-headed,” said defenseman Mike Green, who had sports hernia surgery last year. “I gave him my info, but who knows how he takes it. He’s got one vision and that’s in his own head.”
It’s possible surgery won’t fix Laich’s problem. Defenseman Tom Poti missed two full years with groin injuries and a fractured pelvis, though specialists couldn’t recommend him going under the knife.
“I was hoping that somebody would tell me surgery’s the way to go, ‘Go do this and it’ll help you.’ And that wasn’t the case with mine,” Poti said Monday. “One doctor said it was just really, really, really bad tendinitis, just something that you have to let it settle it down.
“Stop doing the rehab, stop doing the exercises, definitely stop skating. And ultimately that’s what ended up helping me out.”
Green missed 41 games last season with his groin injury/abdominal tear. He returned a month after undergoing sports hernia surgery, and the 27-year-old acknowledged that without it, he might have spent years trying to get healthy.
He tried to get back for the 2011 playoffs and things only got worse. And while the 36-year-old emphasized no two groin injuries are the same, he knows all too well what problems can arise from undue pressure.
“You compensate on the left side, you compensate on the back,” Poti said. “The whole area, it’s all crazy.”
The Caps haven’t clarified exactly what Laich did that caused him to leave the win over the New Islanders on April 4. He hasn’t skated since.
“We thought it was fatigue from lack of use and just lost some strength and maybe he was aggravating it,” Oates said. “It just kind of started to tire and weaken and we determined that it was painful, so we don’t want to get to that point again.”
Having Laich in the lineup at 70 percent effectiveness is better than nothing, and what he brings to the locker room is difficult to understate.
“He’s one of the leaders,” Hendricks said. “He’s not afraid to speak in the locker room, stand up and say what he thinks. It’s important to have those guys around.”
But playing through a groin injury affects just about everything, so the Caps were forced to continue their playoff push without Laich. The acquisition of left wing Martin Erat, now healthy after his bout with a lower-body injury, should help down the stretch.
“Brooksie’s a leader and we’d love to have him here in the dressing room,” Green said. “We obviously miss him, but there’s definitely other guys, the depth on the team, that can step up and play in his position.”
For now, the Caps will have to roll along without Laich, who faces an uncertain future with a difficult injury.
“It’s matter of time,” Poti said. “You knock on wood that hopefully when he gets back on the ice he doesn’t have any more problems with it and he can kind of look back and forget all about it.”