When the Washington Capitals made their run from worst in the NHL to a division championship, they had to do most of it without their captain.
Chris Clark missed all but 18 games last season - first sitting out because he took an Alex Ovechkin slap shot off his ear, but missing most of the time because of a groin injury that he couldn’t quite rehab enough to play.
“It was a mess. It was an absolute mess last year until I got to see the [specialist],” Clark said.
Once the Caps’ season ended, Clark gave up on his short-term rehab plan and started a summer-long one. Every third week he traveled from his New York home to Vancouver to visit groin specialist Rick Celebrini, who helped former Caps forward Brian Sutherby a few years ago.
He began a process that involved lots of stretching and working out with elastic bands. There was no weightlifting and no skating so Celebrini could pinpoint what did and didn’t help the process.
“I learned how to - it is very complicated - but move correctly,” Clark said. “It is all the right muscles - you’ve got to fire the right muscles from [your core] out. You need to learn that because it is not something you do naturally, but if you do it correctly it stabilizes your whole body.”
Clark went through his first official practice with the Caps in months Saturday and reported no problems. His next test is an intrasquad scrimmage Sunday, but Clark is confident his groin troubles are behind him.
“I still have a 45-minute warmup before I even think about getting on the ice,” Clark said. “It is something I’ll probably have to do the rest of my career. It’s not some little thing that will go away. It is something I can control though. It won’t be perfect. I will be able to play no problem as long as I keep up with everything I have to do.”
Where Clark fits in the lineup remains to be seen, but the Caps expect to have three “scoring” lines with the depth provided by the return of Clark and Michael Nylander. He skated with Nylander and Tomas Fleischmann on Saturday.
Clark also likely will join one of the team’s power-play units because of his ability to create traffic in front of the net - something the Caps struggled to do last year. Whenever the offense sputtered last season because the Caps lacked a presence in the crease, a willingness to score dirty goals or a player to win battles in the corner, it seemed like having a player like Clark would have been the answer.
“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” forward Brooks Laich said. “He plays the way we want to play. He’s hard-nosed, he competes and that has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the team.”