It appears Anthony Mantha’s long-awaited return to the Capitals' lineup is drawing near.
Mantha has been on the ice at practice in recent days in a non-contact sweater, and on Monday, wore a regular practice jersey for the first time since shoulder surgery in November. And with a few recent injuries in the lineup, Mantha’s time to return to the ice might come sooner than originally thought.
After practice Wednesday, coach Peter Laviolette indicated Mantha could play soon, and perhaps more importantly, didn’t deny he could play Thursday against the Hurricanes.
“We're going through that right now,” Laviolette said. “He's looking good. He's looking better every day. And that's why we've got to go in and talk and see where everything is at. I haven't talked to him to see how he came out of today and where he's at. ... He's had another good practice and he's looked really strong out there.”
Whenever Mantha is activated off long-term injured reserve, the team will have to fit his $5.7 million salary under the salary cap. General manager Brian MacLellan mentioned a few injury situations the team has (Carl Hagelin’s eye injury and Joe Snively’s upper-body injury) that could provide some cap relief whenever they need it.
MacLellan added that Mantha would meet with head athletic trainer Jason Serbus on Wednesday afternoon and make the determination if Thursday’s game against Carolina would be the day for his return, or if they needed a few more days.
Mantha has been a key absence in the team’s top six this season, which hasn’t had a full assortment of players since the year began. Nicklas Backstrom (hip) didn’t return to the lineup until December, and T.J. Oshie has played sporadically with an assortment of injuries.
“I know we have a short amount of time here (before the trade deadline on March 21),” MacLellan said Wednesday. “Mantha will come back and hopefully Osh and Nick will stay healthy and we'll get a better indication of how the coaches want to use that middle-six group. I think our top line has been good and I think our fourth line has been excellent.”
A year ago, the trio of Mantha, Backstrom and Oshie skated together at five-on-five for 11 games and generally tilted the ice in the Capitals’ favor. Whenever Mantha returns, that figures to be the most likely second line deployed by Laviolette.
In 10 games this season, Mantha scored two goals and had four assists. But since the big deadline trade a year ago where he was acquired from Detroit, he’s played in just 24 games in Washington.
Mantha’s addition to the lineup, and presumably the top six, would also help balance out the Capitals’ lineup and give them a better idea of where the third line stands before the trade deadline in less than three weeks.
Whenever it happens, though, the Capitals will be more than ready to welcome Mantha back into the lineup.