- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2017

Left thumb surgery put Andre Burakovsky in a familiar, if undesirable place in late October. When his teammates were on the road, Burakovsky was alone with a trainer, sweating away while the problem healed, just like last season when he had a right hand injury.

His recent rehabilitation days were intense, since the thumb injury allowed his legs and lungs to be worked with vigor. Capitals strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish tired Burakovsky so much that the 22 year old was asleep at 9 p.m. at times.

“That’s how hard it is,” Burakovsky said Thursday.

Starting Friday, he will be free of that specific cardiovascular torture. Burakovsky has been cleared to return to the ice for the first time since Oct. 21. He will hop back into a line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly in search of the effective blend the group produced last season. His return forced the Capitals into two adjustments: Forward Travis Boyd was re-assigned to Hershey and Tyler Graovac was put on waivers.

Burakovsky said he was not very good when he first returned to practice. In a 2-on-1 drill, he was “far behind” and even offsides once. “That wasn’t great,” he said.

But, lately, he has felt a better flow in his skating and shooting. He cautioned that the rhythm is only specific to practice, and Friday’s game against the New York Rangers is likely to be more difficult, however it is progress from when he was bumbling through 2-on-1 drills.

“On the practice rink, it feels like everything’s there,” Burakovsky said.

The Capitals were a mere 4-4-1 when Burakovsky was hurt. His injury caused a line shuffle. Wayward play after that caused another line shuffle. That has led to a response and flashback to annual surges that accompanied the 2016 and 2017 seasons at this point in the calendar. Washington has moved to within a point of the Metropolitan Division lead thanks to winning six of the last seven games, and was rarely pressed while doing so.

The Rangers are not far behind in a jumbled and potent Metropolitan. Their 32 points has them just three back of the Capitals, yet sixth in the division.

Arriving with New York is former Capitals defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. He was acquired Feb. 27 in a jarring trade which attempted to push the Capitals, already on the way to a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy, to another level. The acquisition was costly: A 2017 first-round pick, a conditional second-round pick in 2019, left wing Zach Sanford, who was a 2013 second-round pick, and forward Brad Malone, who never played for St. Louis and is now with Edmonton.

The attempt at a wave crash turned out to be more of a teardrop when Shattenkirk struggled in the first round of the playoffs. His overtime winner against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round wasn’t enough to undo his struggles in the previous round and otherwise.

Thursday, Capitals coach Barry Trotz mentioned that Shattenkirk helped the Capitals’ power play, before making a revealing comment.

“I think everybody thought of him as a 1-2, and he really wasn’t,” Trotz said. “He was a little lower. I think it worked out OK. I think he had a patch during the one series where it wasn’t really good. I think he regained it and scored a big goal for us in Pitt. I just think, yeah, the first playoff series wasn’t — that’s what you remember. It sticks out. But I think overall he was fine.”

Considering the cost, “fine” could hardly be seen as sufficient.

Shattenkirk said Trotz’s comments would just give him further fuel.

Once Shattenkirk’s brief return, following his brief Washington tenure, passes, the Capitals will look up to see their lines have stabilized. Up top, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are in sync. Evgeny Kuznetsov is shepherding along the second line, with a growing Jakub Vrana. Burakovsky’s return fills out the third. When T.J. Oshie comes back — Trotz said Oshie was shooting Thursday but did not offer a timeline for his return — Washington will be close to whole. No more days with the trainers and early bedtimes. Just games.

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