In a season when the Washington Capitals finally found some semblance of stability in the middle of their second line, they may be forced to proceed over the next several games without center Mikhail Grabovski.
Coach Adam Oates said Monday that the unspecified lower-body injury Grabovski sustained Thursday is more serious than the team originally thought, and while he maintained Grabovski's availability is day-to-day, he will not play Tuesday in the Capitals' road game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Grabovski has scored 12 goals and has 21 assists for 33 points, ranking third on the team, and has often been a contributor on the second power-play unit. His loss comes at a time when the Capitals, despite a 5-0 road victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, have struggled to score.
"Obviously, we lose a really good skater and a really good player," said Eric Fehr, who has consistently been the left wing alongside Grabovski this season. "He controls the puck really well, but you know, we have guys that can fill in and play a few more minutes. Whoever it is, we know what we need to do. We've got a tight group of guys. No matter who's in there, we're going to get the job done."
Grabovski appeared to injure his lower left leg in the 2-1 road loss to the New Jersey Devils on Friday after he got tangled up with defenseman Bryce Salvador during a scoring opportunity in the second period. Salvador, coming in from behind Grabovski just shy of the crease, skated into the back of Grabovski's left leg, knocking the center down and twisting the leg as he, too, fell to the ice.
While Grabovski was able to skate off the ice, he didn't return to the game. He also did not play Saturday against the Canadiens, though it's possible he could join his teammates in Columbus or Detroit later this week as they conclude a stretch of five consecutive games on the road.
"Still, it's one of those injuries that can change fast," said Oates, who alluded to Grabovski's injury as something affecting his ankle. "It's a tough timetable, because you [can't] put your foot in the boot."
The Capitals turned to Brooks Laich to center the second line against the Canadiens, but Laich, recovering from a persisting groin injury, was given Monday morning's practice off as a precautionary measure. The second line, then, had Martin Erat as the center between Fehr and right wing Troy Brouwer.
Despite the layoff and the concern about his health, Oates said Laich will play against the Sabres. He centered the second line against the Canadiens, with Erat the second-line left wing and Fehr playing on the fourth line.
"Fehrsie's played a little bit of center here and there, so if us three are aligned – me, Fehr and Erat – we've got to share the responsibilities," Brouwer said. "We can't look to Fehrsie to go low every time in the D zone, help him out through the neutral zone and just kind of fill lanes – not make him look like he has to be the clear-cut centerman out there."
Before scoring five goals against the Canadiens on Saturday, including four in the first 10:31 of the second period, the Capitals had managed to score only eight goals in their previous seven games. Predictably, all were losses, marking their longest stretch without a victory since an eight-game slide in December 2010.
Their approach Saturday was quite simple. The Capitals took 34 shots and constantly screened Montreal goaltender Carey Price, chasing him from the game after the fourth goal – a wrister from the blue line by defenseman John Carlson.
"We did real well getting pucks to the net and getting pucks in the net," Brouwer said. "It's not just the five goals that we scored, but we got a lot more opportunities to create more offense. That's the key sign – we're creating. Pucks will go in when we keep shooting and keep doing the right things, but we've got to translate that into the next game because we are playing a tough team that we had a tough time scoring goals against."
In two previous games against the Sabres, who enter with a league-worst 35 points, the Capitals managed just two goals on 79 shots against goaltender Ryan Miller. They lost each game 2-1 in a shootout.
"It's not like you're going out there and physically not trying to score goals," said left wing Jason Chimera. "I think it happens sometimes. Sometimes you can put five pucks on net and they not go in and sometimes you can put five pucks and four go in. You've got to keep shooting, do the little things right, and I think things will break for us."
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