Capitals Iceplex — Matt Niskanen took a bump from former Capitals teammate Justin Williams on Thursday, setting off a chain of events that could have easily ended his season.
The Capitals drew a sigh of relief when Niskanen was listed as “day-to-day” after meeting with team doctors. He will even travel with the team to Ottawa and coach Todd Reirden didn’t rule out Niskanen playing on Saturday night against the Senators.
That seemed unthinkable Thursday in the third period of a 3-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes. As Niskanen raced for a puck in the defensive zone, Williams nudged him from behind. Nothing dirty there even if the angle was suspect.
But it did redirect Niskanen into the path of Hurricanes center Clark Bishop. The two collided – with a slight push from behind by Bishop - and Niskanen lost control. He couldn’t brace himself before slamming into the boards behind the Washington net and to add insult to the injury Bishop couldn’t hold up his momentum and his body slammed Niskanen’s head against the boards again.
Niskanen writhed in pain as trainer Jason Serbus came on the ice to tend to him. He eventually skated off under his own power. Capitals forward T.J. Oshie jumped on top of the boards and briefly thought about skating onto the ice. The play was not penalized, but at full speed, the Caps were incensed about Bishop’s hit. Oshie thought better of it knowing that leaving the bench could result in a suspension.
“It’s scary,” Oshie said. “When one of your teammates goes into the boards like that you automatically think the worst.”
But word filtered out after the game that Niskanen somehow had escaped serious injury. That’s good news for Washington, which is already without veteran Brooks Orpik (right knee surgery). The Capitals did lose Niskanen for 14 games in October and November of 2017 with a left-hand injury.
“[Niskanen] plays a lot of minutes and against other teams’ top lines. I think especially on the road it’s an easier set up when we have a guy like Niskanen in there,” Reirden said. “Speaking about Ottawa coming up, the [Matt] Duchenes and [Mark] Stone and those type of players, they’ve got quite a few of them up front there that can do some damage. They can get the matchups they’re looking to get and it makes it a little more difficult on us.”
Orpik, meanwhile, has missed 26 games, but practiced in a red contact jersey the past two days and is inching closer to a return.
Reirden did say Orpik would fly to Ottawa, too, but will not play. He is “questionable” for Monday’s New Year’s Eve matinee against the Nashville Predators. But to get one of its top penalty killers back would be a boost. Orpik, 38, led the Caps in shorthanded time on ice during last year’s Stanley Cup playoff run (78 minutes). Niskanen was second (74:39). Orpik was not made available to comment after participating fully in a hard practice Friday morning.
“You miss that type of a player every day, leadership-wise in our locker room and what he does on the ice -- I thought he was off to a really strong start this season,” Reirden said. “Opponents are often very aware when he's on the ice because of the style of play he plays with.”
If Niskanen can’t play, that means all three of second-year pro-Madison Bowey and rookies Jonas Siegenthaler and Tyler Lewington will. Bowey took Niskanen’s spot on the second defensive pair with Dmitry Orlov at practice.
Washington has had 68 man games lost to injury this season, including Christian Djoos (compartment syndrome), another second-year defenseman who has now missed six games and isn’t expected back for weeks. For Reirden, that’s the silver lining in Orpik’s absence. The young defenseman are learning on the job. That experience is valuable and could come into play later in the season.
“You can have them play in the American League and you can have them watch video and practice and all those type of things, but until they get into NHL game action there’s nothing that compares to it,” Reirden said. “Sure they get great tests every day when they have to go against Alex Ovechkin in practice and Evgeny Kuznetsov and others in practice. But unless there’s a real result that comes out of it like a goal against in your own building in front of 18,000 people then it creates a little bit of a different environment.”
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