Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is the biggest name in a long list of players whose teams are eagerly anticipating their returns to health and the ice. (Photo by Rich Kane/Icon SMI)
By Stu Hackel
The Capitals' surprise announcement on Monday that Alex Ovechkin would be sidelined for the next week-to-10 days while he heals from an undisclosed ailment (perhaps the dreaded "upper body injury" to his lower body) was followed on Tuesday with word that the Kings have lost winger Justin Williams for 3-4 weeks with a separated shoulder. The word on Ovie came a day after the Blackhawks said that top center Patrick Sharp would be out with a knee problem.
The injury parade in the NHL, especially to so many important players, has never seemed as long. At this stage of the season, some of these absences have already had or will have an impact on the stretch drive and into the playoffs.
As with Ovechkin, some clubs seem intent on resting key players who have a few knocks and dings so that they're in better shape for the postseason. Those teams feel they're already safe in their playoff position and are looking ahead to the spring tournament. Other teams don't have that luxury and may not have some key players at 100 percent when the postseason starts.
Here's a look at the teams that are still in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and how their current injury situation affects their chances. (Click here for the Western Conference contenders.)
Boston Bruins: One of the more fortunate clubs down the stretch, the Bs haven't had Marc Savard since late January, but they replaced him by getting Rich Peverley...
...and Chris Kelly at the trade deadline and are getting defenseman Shane Hnidy back shortly. He's missed all of the season thus far with a rotator cuff injury and will be a depth blueliner for coach Claude Julien. You can never have enough defense in the NHL.
Buffalo Sabres: Losing top scorer Derek Roy in late December after leg surgery was a blow, but they've persevered with others picking up the offensive slack. Except for Roy, the Sabres hope to get all their injured, who are listed as day-to-day, back shortly. Jochen Hecht has missed all but two games since Mar. 5 with an upper body injury, Patrick Kaleta has been out with a severe bone bruise from blocking a shot on March 6, Steve Montador is dealing with a lower body injury that has kept him out three of the last five games, and goalie Patrick Lalime is out with a knee injury, although his return is less critical since Buffalo has been carrying three goalies in recent months.
Carolina Hurricanes: They're holding their breath about captain Eric Staal, who left Tuesday's game with a lower body injury and didn't practice on Wednesday. The 'Canes say he's good to go Friday against the Lightning. Other than Staal, Carolina is relatively healthy with defenseman Jamie McBain hoping to return from his shoulder injury if the team makes the playoffs. He's missed the past five games.
Montreal Canadiens: Perhaps no team other than Pittsburgh has been hit as hard, especially on defense. In the long-term category, the Habs lost their top defenseman Andrei Markov...
.... and Josh Gorges to knee injures before the New Year, and Jaroslav Spacek to one in February. They traded for Paul Mara and Brent Sopel before the deadline, then Sopel went down with a broken hand in mid-March. Up front, Max Pacioretty, who had emerged as their best power forward, is out for at least the rest of the regular season after the infamous hit by Zdeno Chara fractured one of his vertebrae and left him concussed. Their top center, Tomas Plekanec, has been day to day with a back injury and is skating, but no return is set. There is some good news with Mathieu Darche (groin), who has been out since mid-February. He hopes to play against Boston on Thursday while Jeff Halpern is skating after missing four games with a lower body injury, but still uncertain about his return. It's rather impressive that this team has managed to stay competitive most nights with all these absences.
New Jersey Devils: While they haven't suffered any recent major injuries , their early-season swoon had many factors and among the biggest was not having Zach Parise, one of the NHL's top left wingers. He had surgery on Nov. 2 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee and has been skating by himself for nearly three weeks. He skated with the team for the first time Thursday, but his recovery may be too late to help the Devils make the playoffs. Solid defensive defenseman Bryce Salvador missed the entire season with a concussion, and two rookie defensemen, puck-mover Matt Taormina (ankle) and shutdown d-man Matt Corrente (shoulder), have both been out since November and January respectively. Taormina could return if the Devils make the playoffs. Corrente is still uncertain.
New York Rangers:Marc Staal, a leader in the young defense corps, has been battling a knee injury and lingering pain for about a month. He's been in and out of the lineup, missing his second straight game on Tuesday. Back-up goalie Marty Biron has been out since late February with a broken collarbone and while it is hoped that he could be back for the playoffs, he hasn't begun any workouts yet. The backup is Chris Johnson, who hasn't played in the NHL this season. That's why everyone in Rangersville gets jumpy when someone crashes into Henrik Lundqvist. Captain Chris Drury has been out since early February after arthroscopic knee surgery, and while there was some thought that he might be back for the playoffs, he's not skating and could be done for 2010-11.
Philadelphia Flyers: One can't envision them going far without big Chris Pronger in their lineup...
... although they did pretty well after he went down with a broken foot in mid-December. He's been missing again since mid-March, this time following hand or wrist surgery, and the Flyers have gotten at least one point in every game since. Pronger is skating and handling the puck again, with some discomfort, and he reportedly might get into a game or two before the playoffs begin. Fellow defenseman Oskars Bartulis went down with a shoulder injury in late February and could be back during the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The M*A*S*H* unit of the NHL for a good part of the season, the Pens are encouraged that Sidney Crosby is skating again and hopeful about returning from his concussion. Brooks Orpik and Eric Tangradi are also back practicing with the team. Orpik has missed 11 games with a broken finger, Trangradi has been out since he was concussed by a headshot from the Islanders' Trevor Gillies on Feb. 11.
Evgeni Malkin is gone for the season after reconstructive knee surgery, center Mark Letestu is day-to-day since a shoulder injury last week, and winger Nick Johnson has been skating again after a February concussion. Winger Mike Comrie, out since December after hip surgery, was thought to be done for the year, but he has been skating for a month and reportedly could return during the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning: With just two wins in their past 11 games, they hope their key injured trio will be ready for the playoffs. Winger Ryan Malone has missed all but one game since Jan. 23 with an abdominal muscle injury, winger Steve Downie (ankle) has been out nine games, and defenseman Randy Jones is out with a high ankle sprain. Downie is now day-to-day, Malone is proceeding slowly, but a return by the playoffs is quite possible. Jones may be delayed until after the playoffs start.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs' playoff hopes, however faint, would be brighter had hard-working Clarke MacArthur not broken his foot in mid-March. Colton Orr (concussion) has been out since January and there is no word on his return. Defenseman Mike Komisarek, while not a top pair blueliner at this point, is missed. A groin injury has kept him out of the lineup for the last three games.
Washington Capitals: The plan for Ovechkin, who reportedly had a cortisone shot in his wrist in early January, is to let him heal his undisclosed aches and pains and get him back for one of he Caps' next two home games, either March 29 against Carolina or March 31 against Columbus. They've been without top defenseman Mike Green since he suffered a concussion on Feb. 25 against the Rangers. He was eligible to come off long-term injured reserve on Tuesday, but hasn't participated in a full contact scrimmage yet, and there's no timetable for his return. The news is a bit better for fellow blueliner Tom Poti, out with a groin injury since January. He's been skating with the club and hopes to return shortly, although he is coming along more slowly than expected. Jason Arnott, whose trade deadline addition helped spark the Caps recent surge...
... before he went down with his own groin injury, skated with Ovechkin on Wednesday. Coach Bruce Boudreau said he expects both to be back next week.