Return of Caps defenseman Jack Hillen closer, but still in question

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Capitals defenseman Jack Hillenis not ready yet to declare a return after Tuesday’s rehabilitation game with AHL Hershey.

Hillen, 28, sustained a right tibial plateau fracture on Oct. 3 against Calgary and has missed the last 57 games. He began the year as a third-pair defenseman on the left side next to rookie Connor Carrick.

“I’m close. I’m really close,” Hillen said. “I’m trying not to beat myself up over it because I feel like I’m so close, but I also know I’m not in a position yet where I can do the things that I need to do to be able to be the best hockey player I can be out there. And I don’t want to hurt myself or the team and put myself in positions where I know I’m just not quite there.”

Hillen played about 20 minutes for the Bears and actually five shots on goal. Not bad. But he has experience with long layoffs. Remember that frightening play at Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 26, 2010 when an Alex Ovechkin shot smashed into Hillen’s jaw? He returned to action after five weeks following that injury even though he knew he wasn’t really ready and struggled.

“It’s killing me. I want to be out there,” Hillen said. “Mentally, I just really want to be out there, but I’ve got to be honest with everybody involved and I think that’s being professionally, doing the right thing, being a pro to tell everybody how I feel.”

Later he added: “I wish I wasn’t honest with myself and the coaches because I just want to go out and play, but then I would be doing everybody a disservice.”

Hillen will go on the trip to Florida and Boston with the Caps and evaluate how he feels Thursday morning. But he also said he didn’t playing against the Panthers was “realistic.” Hillen is still looking for more “explosion” on the ice. He practiced five days against his NHL teammates last week. The Hershey game was mental, more than anything, according to Hillen. It also let him know “that I feel like I’m a good hockey player still.”

But Caps coach Adam Oates said it’s natural to be tired after a game like that and sore after months out of game action. He was less willing to rule Hillen out, who went through yet another total practice on Wednesday even after playing the night before.

“He played a hockey game and it’s the first time in a long while so I’d imagine you;re pretty achy the next day,” Oates said. “He traveled. He’s in a car service for a few hours. Not much sleep. The fact that he practiced, to me, says it feels better than he thinks it does. We’ll see how he feels [Thursday].”

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