NEW YORK — While sitting out more than half of the Washington Capitals' season, Brooks Laich watched many games from the press box alongside assistant coach and video specialist Blaine Forsythe.
"If I had questions about the system, I would ask him during the hockey game and we'd watch it and he'd diagram it on a piece of a paper: 'This is exactly what we want to do,'" Laich said. "When you watch it from up top, it makes it easy to understand. I didn't want the system to be any hindrance when I came back."
Adjusting to coach Adam Oates' system hasn't been a problem for Laich in his first four games, and the 29-year-old's presence has made the Caps look like an entirely different team. Playing with Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer, Laich has helped give Washington two lines that can score on any shift.
"I think we can really push the pace now with a couple offensive lines," he said. "And you can follow it up back-to-back, you can stretch their defensemen, make them play extra minutes that maybe they're uncomfortable in."
The Laich-Ribeiro-Brouwer trio combined for three goals in two victories at the Winnipeg Jets. It's obvious that opponents can no longer focus solely on shutting down Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson.
Having Laich back as a top-six forward makes everything down the lineup fit together better.
"Before, I think we were struggling with forcing guys to fit within the team," Brouwer said. "But I like where we're at right now. It makes it tough for other teams to try and key on one line and put their shutdown D or their shutdown line against one certain line because we have another line that's dangerous as well."
Especially dangerous because Laich hasn't required an adjustment period, even after being out of game action since late 2012. He credited the medical staff with helping him get to this point, but a lot has to do with Laich being stubborn and prepared to come back.
"He talked to me about two weeks ago about he was not worried about his conditioning at all," Oates said. "And he doesn't look like we should be."
Laich missed the first 28 games but was more than up to speed by the time he debuted March 19 at the Pittsburgh Penguins. In two games at the Jets, Oates said Laich looked like he had been "shot out of a cannon."
Tough for tired defenders to stop that.
"You can't beat speed with a good decision-maker," Oates said. "You just can't."
Laich got thrown in on the penalty kill right away, and it might not take long for him to be back playing 18 minutes a night with power-play responsibilities thrown in. Teammates can't talk about him without mentioning his work ethic, but that's not all he brings.
"He's one of those impact players that can make a difference and he really takes the game serious," defenseman Mike Green said. "It's good to see him back out there and doing what he does best."
Forget just about being responsible defensively and blocking shots; Laich earned a six-year, $27 million contract in June 2011 because he contributes offensively, as well.
Oates said it benefits Ribeiro to play alongside Laich on a second line that could arguably be considered the Caps' top offensive unit.
"You can see our lines right now are [how we pictured] in the game," Ovechkin said. "It's always nice to have all lines rolling."
When Laich came back last week, Oates said his return was supposed to provide an emotional boost. After going 12-15-1 without him, the Caps have shown flashes of being a playoff contender since Laich returned from a groin injury.
Some of what he brings has nothing to do with on-the-ice play. In the locker room and elsewhere, "We missed Brooks Laich," Brouwer said.
"Obviously he's a big part of this team, and to have him back I think it's just great," Ribeiro said. "He's a guy who brings emotion to the game and he's a guy who gets ready and prepares himself well for games. I think it's good. I think he brings other guys with him in the same boat and makes sure guys are ready for games."
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