It’s been nearly seven weeks since Jack Hillen last took the ice for the Washington Capitals, missing game after game after game as a healthy scratch and relegated to watching his teammates from the press box or the dressing room.
The internal struggle that comes with sitting out can take a mental toll, especially after Hillen missed large portions of the last two seasons because of injury.
“If you let it consume you, you’re going to bring everyone down around you,” Hillen said.
The reward for staying positive, as Hillen should realize on Wednesday, is that opportunities can present themselves. When the Capitals hit the road to face the New York Islanders, Hillen is expected to be on the ice, making his first appearance since the season-opening loss to Montreal.
That chance comes at the expense of Mike Green, who sustained what the team is referring to as an upper-body injury in the Capitals’ loss to Buffalo on Saturday.
Not only will it be the first time that Hillen has been in the lineup, but it’ll break a streak of 19 consecutive games where Washington has started the same six defensemen in the same three pairings.
A year after the Capitals cycled a league-high 14 defensemen into a game, they’ve had the most consistent defensive corps, one of 10 teams to use just seven players — including Hillen, who has played in only one game.
And, while coach Barry Trotz has jumbled his defensive pairings at time during games to generate a spark or seal up a deficiency, he’s turned back to the same groups at the start of every game, using Brooks Orpik and John Carlson as his top duo, followed by Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen and Nate Schmidt and Green.
“It helps,” Trotz said. “It’s just like having lines together, or at least, a good portion of your line, the guts of your line, in five-on-five. There’s tendencies. Orpik and Carlson have been together for a long time, and Alzner and Niskanen.”
The consistency in those pairings also helps with communication issues, Trotz said. When players spend so much time alongside each other, they learn to anticipate their linemate’s reactions.
A player may like to receive a pass farther from his body than closer to his skates — or maybe a tighter pass is better. Perhaps a player breaks a certain way when he cycles back for the puck, and a teammate familiar with such a habit can react accordingly.
“They learn little things like that that come instinctually for each other,” Trotz said. “Then it’s the communication and the feel on the ice.”
Green has not only been, statistically, the Capitals’ most productive defenseman this season, but he’s been one of the most productive defensemen in the NHL. His 12 points, off three goals and nine assists, are tied fourth on the team and 16th in the league, before Tuesday’s games. His 1.64 points per 60 minutes put him sixth.
He’s been productive despite seeing significantly less ice time per game — just 19 minutes, 56 seconds — than he has since the 2006-07 season, his second in the league.
That, to Niskanen, is part of the reason why the defense has been productive as a whole.
“Ideally, and it depends, you should play 18 to 22 minutes for your optimum level,” said Niskanen, who’s clocking 21:34 on the ice, behind only the 23:14 played nightly by Carlson. “Most nights, a lot of us are within a minute or two of that. You can play it harder and play the right way because you’re not as fatigued.”
Green appeared to sustain his injury in the first period of the Capitals’ eventual 2-1 loss, which snapped a two-game winning streak. With 3:25 to play before intermission, Green was hip-checked by Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, with his right shoulder and back hitting the top of the wall.
He continued to play into the second period before leaving the game, with Niskanen and Alzner splitting the extra shift with Schmidt throughout the third period. Niskanen also replaced Green as the point man on the top power-play unit — and he even scored his first goal with the Capitals with a blast near the blue line 5:54 into the period.
Hillen, who broke into the NHL with the Islanders in 2008 and played his first four seasons with the organization, said he’s both nervous and excited to get back into the lineup on Wednesday.
It’s a different situation than last season, when he played in only 13 games because of a broken leg, or the previous year, when he missed extended time with broken ribs. This one, he said, has been “frustrating,” because he feels like he’s healthy and he can’t get on the ice.
“Having said that, I’m going to use that experience of being injured and coming in and playing well as a positive for this experience when I get in there, because it’s been a long stretch,” Hillen said. “I know I’ve sat out before and jumped back in and played well, so I know I can do it, and it’s been reassuring mentally.”