- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

It is a battle Eric Fehr has waged before: prove he deserves regular playing time for the Washington Capitals despite returning from a major injury and being deployed on one of the bottom two lines.

Oh, just for good measure: There is another injured player’s return on the horizon that could complicate matters, so he doesn’t have a lot of time to ease back into things.

Fehr spent his summer vacation rehabilitating his shoulders after having surgery to repair both labrums. It delayed his 2009-10 debut until last Saturday in Detroit, so he has played only three games and logged less than 30 minutes of ice time.

Still, the time for Fehr to produce is now.

“I want to start scoring right now. It is tough,” he said. “I know it is an uphill battle for me to put up big numbers since I haven’t played in a while. I definitely feel like I can contribute, and I want to start as soon as possible.”

About a week after the Caps lost to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals (a series Fehr missed the end of after a big hit from Ruslan Fedotenko), Fehr visited a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic.

He wasn’t sure what to expect, but the news wasn’t good. Fehr needed both labrums repaired and was given the option to fix one immediately and wait a year for the other or do both at the same time - a move that not every physician would sign off on.

Fehr, who earlier in his career was sidelined 10 months with a back injury, decided to get it over with all at once, so the next day he was on the operating table.

“I got it done and sat around for the next couple of weeks without being able to do anything and then started rehab as soon as I could,” said Fehr, who had to keep both arms in a sling and needed help from his wife to execute simple daily tasks.

When Fehr’s rehabilitation process began, he was limited to stretching his upper body and riding a stationary bike. Then it progressed to weight training, but at first he was using 1-pound weights.

“[It was] working all the small muscle groups and stuff you don’t think you have to be doing or haven’t done ever,” Fehr said. “I had to start from square one.”

He wasn’t allowed to ask for clearance from a doctor until four months had passed. Fehr started practicing with the team near the end of training camp, but he needed time to prove his shoulders were sound and to reach game shape.

The Caps wanted to send him to Hershey for a conditioning stint, but a lack of secondary scoring made them reconsider - when he was in his car on the way there. Fehr played in his natural spot on the right wing in his season debut on the third line with Chris Clark and David Steckel, but coach Bruce Boudreau had him on the left side the past two games.

“I don’t want to get overly critical of Eric, because he hasn’t had a training camp,” Boudreau said. “He’s played three games, but everyone else played three or four preseason games. We threw him right in the mix, which is why we wanted to, if we could have afforded to at the time, send him to Hershey for a few games. He’s getting a little bit more ice time each day, and I hope he’s getting a little more comfortable.”

Fehr drew a penalty in the first period Thursday against San Jose but missed a defensive assignment that led to the Sharks’ only goal. With Tomas Fleischmann close to returning from a blood clot in his leg, a crowded forward corps is about to be even more squeezed.

The Caps - and Boudreau in particular - are high on Fleischmann, so someone is going to have to sit to make room for him. Fehr has work to do to make sure he isn’t the one.

“I think there’s a lot of forwards that have to worry. It gives us an option,” Boudreau said. “I don’t know if it’s saying, ‘OK, Eric, you’re going to lose ice time,’ or whomever, but [Fleischmann] is a guy who at full strength we think is a valuable member of our team.

“I think [Fehr] has done an admirable job, but he’s got a ways to go before he’s where we think he should be.”

• Corey Masisak can be reached at cmasisak@washingtontimes.com.

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