It’s been 311 days since Brooks Laich suited up for the Washington Capitals and in case you’re wondering, yes, there’s a good chance he’s been counting.
Laich’s 10-month wait to return to the Caps’ lineup is expected to end tonight when the Caps try to break the Penguin’ nine-game win streak at CONSOL Energy Center [7:30 p.m., CSN].
Capitals head coach Adam Oates told reporters in Pittsburgh that Laich will start tonight's game on a fourth line with Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks and will see some time on the penalty kill.
To make room for Laich the Caps put defenseman Tom Poti on injured reserve.
Laich injured his groin during the lockout and after numerous attempts to return, he underwent a grueling muscle strengthening program that allowed him to return to the ice with minimal discomfort.
Last season Laich, 29, finished sixth on the Caps in scoring with 41 points [16 goals, 25 assists].
Defenseman Dmitry Orlov is also expected to make his season debut with the Caps after missing three months of the Hershey Bears season with a concussion.
The Caps are hoping another couple days of rest will help defenseman Mike Green return to the lineup. He’ll miss his 10th straight game with a groin injury.
According to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, the Pens will be without center Evgeni Malkin [upper body] and defenseman Kris Letang [lower body].
That hasn’t stopped the Pens from rocketing to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 22-8-0 record and 44 points, 19 more than the Capitals, who are hoping to build off Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres and close the seven-point gap on eighth-place New Jersey .
The Pens outscored the Capitals 6-3 and 5-2 in their two previous games against them, going 5-for-7 on the power play. The Capitals rank third in the NHL on the power play [24.5 percent]; the Penguins are fourth [24.1 percent].
Despite the Pens’ dominance over the Caps this season Bylsma said he believes the rivalry between the two teams – and the matchup between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin -- is very much alive.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the heightened rivalry than Ovechkin-Crosby in the 2009 playoffs,” Bylsma told reporters. “The hype of that, the media attention, I still feel that.
“I still feel that [rivalry] when we play the Washington Capitals in their building against Ovechkin, and when they come here, regardless of where they’re at in the standings.”
Bylsma says there is a distinct change in the way the Caps play under Oates than the way they played under Dale Hunter.
“It’s easy to see they’re playing similar to the way New Jersey is playing,” Bylsma said. “They’re not quite there in terms of their structure and what they’re trying to accomplish, but it’s different than under Hunter.
“We watched American League games early this season with Adam down in Hershey and saw immediately how they were trying to play and what they were trying to do and it’s a few steps away from where they were at the end of last season.”