It has been more than 14 months since Brian Pothier played in an NHL game, but his return is closer than it has been at any point during a long rehabilitation process.
Pothier was recalled Sunday by the Washington Capitals after a conditioning stint with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and traveled with the team to Atlanta for a game Monday against the Thrashers. The Caps also summoned goaltender Simeon Varlamov and sent netminder Michal Neuvirth to Hershey.
“It has obviously been a long time coming,” Pothier said. “Being in Hershey the last few games has been phenomenal for me. You can practice all you want, shoot as many pucks as you want, but as soon as you get someone coming in to get you and give you a hit and bump you, things change.”
Pothier has had four documented concussions in his seven-year NHL career. He last played for Washington against Boston on Jan. 3, 2008, but a hit by Bruins forward Milan Lucic knocked him out for more than 15 months.
He was sent to Hershey earlier this month after practicing with the Caps for several weeks. Pothier played four games with the Bears, and he felt like he improved with each contest.
“I was really excited about [getting hit], and I was relieved,” Pothier said. “Going into it, you don’t know to expect. I haven’t felt a hit in a while, and when you get hit you realize I’m not damaged goods. I’m not fragile. I’m still capable and everything still works real well.
“Getting hit is part of hockey. Once I took a hit, it was sort of refreshing. I had some anxiety and fear about it, and all of that was sort of lifted because that first hit is out of the way, and now it is let the instincts take over and just play.”
The 31-year-old defenseman was undrafted and spent a season in the International Hockey League after four years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He said he hasn’t talked to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau about when he might be inserted into the lineup.
But for months the question was whether this opportunity would ever be there again.
“Everyone has their opinion,” Pothier said. “Most people I’ve come across have been real excited. It is obvious that there are risks, and you know there are risks that are involved. Some people have felt [compelled] to talk about those risks. A lot of people have said, ‘Hey, great - go for it.’ Overall, there’s been nothing but really positive encouragement.”
Varlamov, a first-round pick in the 2006 draft, won both of his starts this season for the Caps. He has dealt with multiple injuries, but he is 18-6-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage for Hershey this season.
Neuvirth, selected 11 choices after Varlamov at No. 34 overall, also has been solid in limited NHL duty. He is 2-1-0 with a 3.00 GAA and an .892 save percentage in five appearances (three starts). He has split this season between South Carolina of the ECHL, Hershey and the Caps - with a brief detour to the top league in the Czech Republic.