PITTSBURGH — Brooks Laich slept fine Monday night. Knowing full well he was making his season debut Tuesday at the Penguins, the Washington Capitals forward insisted he was “focused on the hockey game,” not himself.
Let the rest of his teammates share the excitement. Laich is back after missing the first 28 games with a groin injury, and the Caps hope his return sparks them at a time they need any boost they can get.
“He’s tough to replace on the ice but also in the [locker] room,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s got a lot of passion in his game and loves playing hockey, and that definitely shows when he’s on the ice and competing.”
Perhaps Laich competing so hard night in and night out was lacking for more than half the season.
“Hopefully it helps our intensity,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “We haven’t been even close to intense enough this year. And a guy like him, he brings it every day, and I hope he can be a big leader on this team because right now we need it.”
Laich is counted on for so much, so his absence left a gaping hole in the lineup. When healthy, the 29-year-old is a power-play and penalty-kill regular. And coach Adam Oates has been looking for a top-line left wing all season.
“He’s a big key on our team,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “He plays a lot of minutes. He can play power play, PK, everything. So of course we missed him.”
The Caps went 12-15-1 without Laich, who injured his groin while playing for the Kloten Flyers in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. Laich skated for 21/2 weeks beginning Jan. 31, then shut it down to concentrate on off-ice workouts beginning Feb. 17.
Laich stepped off the ice because he knew he wasn’t close to returning. Since then, it’s been a “long” process working with trainers Greg Smith and Ben Reese.
“I owe those two a lot. They’ve done a lot of work that you guys haven’t seen,” Laich said. “They’ve done a tremendous amount of work and been a great support staff for me.”
The training staff had to protect Laich from himself, keeping him on track. The stubborn forward wanted to play Sunday at the Buffalo Sabres but agreed to hold off until Tuesday.
Laich said he wanted to make sure not to get caught up in the excitement of skating without limits that he rushed back. Ex-Caps goaltender Tomas Vokoun, whose 2011-12 season was cut short because of a groin injury, agreed.
Vokoun was still feeling the effects of the February injury in September.
“I rushed back and look at what happened to me,” Vokoun said. “Who knows what I cost myself doing that? But it’s part of life and it’s something, you can’t sometimes control situations. But from my own experience, anybody who has a groin injury, even talking to guys here, take as much as time as you need because it’s not worth it.”
As tough as it was to accept, Laich realized that. He spoke to defenseman Mike Green and others who dealt with groin injuries to get some feedback and advice.
“What they say is you have to be totally comfortable that you can launch yourself into a pile and come out with a puck,” Laich said. “You can’t go on the ice trying to tiptoe around, dip your toe in the water. In that case, you’re not ready to play.”
But Laich said over the weekend nothing was physically stopping him from jumping into game action. He’s prepared for and welcomes the “baptism by fire” that comes with the first few days back in the lineup.
“I’m going to come in and do the same things I’ve always done: skate, be on the body, shoot the puck, be around the net, hopefully help out on special teams,” Laich said Tuesday morning.
Backstrom cautioned that it will take a couple of games for Laich to adjust to playing Oates’ system. After watching it for so many games, Laich is not worried.
“I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for how it works having the bird’s-eye view for a little bit,” he said. “But it’s different when you play, the feel of the game.”
That isn’t something that should take too long to recapture. And with it, Laich could bring the Caps some needed intensity.
“Brooksie’s always ready to play. That shows intensity,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “I think having Brooksie in the lineup is just a big piece to the puzzle for us.”