- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Brooks Laich is making progress with his groin injury and could take contact in practice soon, according to Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates.

Laich skated Tuesday, his fourth day on the ice with teammates this season. He suffered the groin injury while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout.

“You know what? He said he felt a lot better. He looks a lot better,” Oates said. “It’s one of those situations where I got to trust the trainers and doctors in terms of evaluation, how soon. I don’t know. Sometimes it might linger, sometimes it might just go to that next level and feel great.”

The next step for the 29-year-old forward, who declined to talk to reporters Tuesday about his injury, is to be able to absorb contact in a practice setting.

“I think he’s really close to contact,” Oates said. “I can only speak from experience where I had a couple groin injuries and you feel like it’s lingering and all of a sudden one day you feel like, ‘Wow, it’s that much better that I can take contact.’ Then once you get over that hurdle, you’re fine.”

It’s uncertain when Laich will get over that hurdle. There is no timeframe for him to make his season debut.

Oates has said repeatedly that the Caps don’t want Laich to rush and suffer a setback. For someone as stubborn as Laich, it’s a challenge to deal with not being in the lineup.

“I would hope every guy wants to play, but, yeah, he’s dying,” Oates said. “Nobody wants to miss time at the start of the year, and he’s a big part of our team. We miss him.”

Ovechkin’s advice to Kessel

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel went into Tuesday night’s game at the Caps without a goal in his first nine games. The longest goal-scoring drought of his career was 14 games in 2011.

Oates said the key was getting chances, and Kessel was doing that with a league-best 40 shots through Monday. As a fellow star who has gone through struggles, captain Alex Ovechkin offered his own advice to Kessel.

“I think after a couple games, you think like, ‘OK, I’m gonna have a chance and I’m gonna score,’” Ovechkin said. “After nine games you feel like big pressure on your shoulder, especially in Toronto. The fans, the media all over him I think. I just wanna give him advice like, ‘Don’t listen nobody. Just play your game.’

“Everybody knows he can score; he’s a top player out there. Lots of players play against him very carefully and give him more pressure. He just have to handle it.”

Backstrom gnome night

Each fan attending Tuesday night’s game at Verizon Center received a Nicklas Backstrom garden gnome, easily the most entertaining Caps giveaway in recent history. The center has had bobblehead likenesses of himself, but the gnome was a first.

“What a beautiful gift,” Oates said, smiling. “What a compliment, a gnome.”

Players were baffled at the notion of Backstrom as a gnome. Troy Brouwer said his dogs are scared of gnomes and various other garden decorations, while Joel Ward just shook his head when showed a photo of the Backstrom gnome.

Ovechkin smiled.

“Oh, nice,” he said.

Asked where he’s going to put the garden gnome version of himself, Backstrom said: “It’s going to be right beside my bed, I think.”

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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