The Washington Capitals are plenty used to playing without Mike Green. Two concussions, shoulder problems, a twisted ankle and a groin injury-turned-abdominal tear robbed the defenseman of 80 regular-season games in the past two years.
When Green tried to come back from a groin strain last season, he made it through parts of two games before bowing out of the lineup again.
“I think that was the case last year is he wanted to come back because maybe we weren’t doing so well,” defenseman Jeff Schultz said. “And he wanted to get back out there helping us and even made it worse.”
So as Green nurses a lower-body injury that could keep him out Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils and possibly beyond that, the Caps know that as valuable as the 27-year-old is in all facets, they can’t afford to lose him for too long.
“He had an extended injury for trying to come back a little bit early last year,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “I think he knows as well how bad of an idea it is to come back early if you’re not 100 percent. We need him to be ready to play and ready to play nontentatively, and for that he needs to be 100 percent.”
Judging by Green’s brief foray onto the ice in the past couple of days, he’s not 100 percent. After suffering the injury Feb. 14 at the Tampa Bay Lightning, he missed Sunday’s game at the New York Rangers and skated for less than an hour without any real exertion over the past two days.
Even as he offered an optimistic take on Green’s status, coach Adam Oates’ assessment of the defenseman didn’t sound encouraging.
“He didn’t want to do too much. We’ll see how he is in the morning,” Oates said Wednesday. “He felt pretty good. He just didn’t want to be explosive. But he felt fine with everything else.”
Without explosiveness, Green can’t be himself. Prior to this injury, he was skating as smoothly as he has in recent years and made the three-year, $18.25 million contract the Caps signed him to over the summer look like a worthwhile investment.
With just two goals and five assists, Green might not have looked like a Norris Trophy finalist, but he was playing by far the most minutes on the team at a career-high 26:33 a game.
“He’s definitely our best defenseman, and anytime you lose one of your best players it hurts a lot, puts a little more pressure on the guys to try and perform up to that level and sometimes you try and do a little bit too much,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “So having that guy out there kind of calms everybody down, and anytime he’s out, the team isn’t as good.”
Not as good on the power play, even with John Carlson and Tomas Kundratek stepping into bigger roles. Not as good short-handed, when there are more taxing minutes to spread around. And not as good at even-strength because of Green’s ability to jump-start the offense.
“I think we’ll miss him a lot on the power play,” defenseman John Erskine said. “He’s one of our top defensemen, and you see him out there, he can pick people apart and just take the puck by himself and break the team out.”
But the Caps are accustomed to this. Counting a three-game suspension, they’ve played 84 of the past 179 regular-season games without Green.
“It helps,” Alzner said. “But it doesn’t really matter how many times you’ve done it before — it’s still never as easy to play those games.”
Even as veteran Tom Poti slides in and Kundratek gets a promotion, it’s not easy for the Caps to make up for everything Green brings. But that doesn’t mean they want him to hurry back and risk making things worse.
“It’s a situation where when you get hurt, you want to make sure that when you come back in the lineup you don’t have to leave again because of the same injury,” said Poti, who missed two years with a groin injury and fractured pelvis. “You want to make sure you’re 100 percent and you don’t want to have to be thinking about it.”
It’s especially concerning given the Caps’ reliance on Green in all situations and his lengthy injury history. Oates wasn’t around for most of that, but he knows how valuable an asset the defenseman is when healthy and how delicate a situation he and the team are dealing with.
“Obviously very frustrating. And I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Oates said. “We have to be very cautious. We definitely don’t want to set him back.”
So the Caps have to prepare for Green’s absence. That includes leaning heavily on Carlson, who played a season-high 26:15 Sunday at New York.
“I play my game,” Carlson said. “The only thing that really changes for me is I just get more power play. I play the penalty kill and I don’t change my game five-on-five because he’s out of the lineup.”
If the Rangers game is any indication, Kundratek will be counted on to be more than just a third-pair defenseman and a power-play specialist. Alzner and Oates praised the 23-year-old rookie, who played a career high 23:25.
While Carlson and Kundratek are right-handed, puck-moving defensemen like Green, they don’t have his fearsome shot on the power play, skating prowess or ability to turn the ice around so rapidly.
“It does make a big difference,” Brouwer said. “To lose your best up-ice skating defenseman is tough, especially when you’re trying to score goals because a lot of offense is created from our D-men jumping up in the rush. And when you lose someone like him who is that offensive threat, it makes one less weapon on the offensive aspect.”
But the thought of losing Green for more than a few games is not something the Caps want to consider, so patience is a painful, but necessary, virtue.
“We’d rather have him healthy than playing hurt,” Erskine said. “We have the right trainers and stuff that will make sure he won’t rush it back because it is a short season and we’re going to need him in the long run.”