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At a Presidents’ Day skate following the weekend off, the Washington Capitals displayed something fans have yet to see this season: a full lineup. For the first time during the 2021-22 season, the Caps had all of their skaters on the ice for practice. Though all players aren’t completely healthy, it was a major step forward for a team fighting for a playoff spot.
“We’re still not there. Still a lot of question marks out there, but it was nice to get everybody out there and practice,” head coach Peter Laviolette said.
Since the start of training camp, the Capitals have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Initially, the team was without the services of Nicklas Bäckström, who was rehabilitating a lingering hip injury and would be out for the first few months of the season.
After that, two more top-six forwards went down. Anthony Mantha suffered a shoulder injury on Nov. 4 against Florida that would require surgery, and T.J. Oshie has been dealing with multiple upper and lower-body ailments, in addition with bouts of COVID-19 and the flu. Then, earlier this month, an upper body injury sidelined goaltender Vítek Vaněček. More than a dozen players on the Capitals also ended up on COVID-19 protocols following the spike in COVID-19 cases earlier this season.
But the pile of injuries appear to be behind the team for now, and the Caps can finally make progress as a full unit. Bäckström is back in the lineup full time and has 14 points in 19 games as he continues to get back into a rhythm. Mantha is skating in a powder blue non-contact jersey, but is still participating in drills. Oshie and Vaněček are cleared for contact and are a full-go at practice.
“It’s great,” Bäckström said. “I mean, I think all year, it’s been guys in and out of the lineup, and we haven’t really played with our full lineup yet this year. I mean, it’s nice to see … It’s fun to see [Mantha and Oshie]. They obviously mean a lot to this team.”
Getting those top-six forwards back will be vital. Not only have the Capitals experienced inconsistency while trading wins and losses over the last month and a half, but their secondary scoring has also taken a dip. The power play is also struggling, though it is starting to improve with Bäckström’s return.
Mantha started off skating on his own and is now back to practicing with the group, but still has to get back into the swing of full contact drills. As of right now, there is no timeline, but his return to the group marks major progress.
“He’s got a long road here. He’s traveling in a different group right now, he’s with the rehab guys. Not at the game, not in the practices, oftentimes not in the meetings. And so right now, his focus is just on getting healthy and put himself in a position to get back to the ice,” Laviolette said earlier this month.
Oshie, however, is closer to returning, and the Capitals are not only excited to get him back on the ice, but back in the dressing room as well. His energy and vocal leadership is contagious, and also provides a spark that the team benefits from and will certainly need as the playoff push continues.
“I don’t think there’s too many people, you know, in the game better than Osh as far as on and off the ice,” Tom Wilson said. “Just having him around on the day to day, making people better around him. A leader, a friend, a good teammate, just a really good, first-class person and one of those guys you’re lucky to play with. Just makes everything at the rink better every time he’s there.”
It’s unclear what the exact timelines are, but it’s possible that Oshie and Vaněček could return when Washington travels on a two-game road swing coming off this past bye week. The team is currently in the wild card position and is looking to climb back up the Metropolitan Division standings. Getting back to full strength will provide a major boost.