Short of the NHL awarding them 10 more points for good behavior, the news out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Thursday could not have been better.
Center Nicklas Backstrom, who left Tuesday night’s 5-4 shootout loss to he Los Angeles Kings with what many feared was a left shoulder injury, said he felt good after Thursday’s practice and will “absolutely” play on Saturday when the Capitals continue their playoff chase against the Boston Bruins.
Center Mikhail Grabovski, who has missed 21 of the past 22 games with a left ankle injury, also skated and said he’s “very ready” to return on Saturday, adding the final call will be made by the Caps’ medical and coaching staffs.
Defenseman Jack Hillen, shaken up in an open-ice collision with Alex Ovechkin late in Tuesday night’s shootout loss to the Kings, did not skate with the club but coach Adam Oates said he’s “just sore” from the hit and expects him to be in the lineup Saturday as well.
And if that wasn’t enough good news, center Brooks Laich said he’s feeling so “liberated” following his March 17 groin surgery that he’s “very hopeful” he’ll return to the lineup before the end of the Caps’ regular season.
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Backstrom, who is second on the Caps with 70 points, said his left shoulder felt much better with a day of rest.
“It was safety before anything else,” Backstrom said.
He said he tried to avoid his collision with Doughty by leaping.
“I tried to jump to get around him, but he caught me anyway,” Backstrom said. “It looked kind of funny to be honest with you.”
Backstrom is one of seven Capitals who have played in all 73 games this season. He ranks third in the NHL with 57 assists.
“He’s one of the biggest parts, if not the biggest part of our team because he brings everything,” Caps goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Everyone knows about his offensive game, but he has a defensive presence and his leadership, he gives us a calmness when it comes to stressful situations. You can go on and on about what Nicky brings to this team.”
Grabovski said his ankle is feeling stronger than it did when he first returned from the injury Feb. 27 in the Caps’ first game back from the Olympic break. Grabovski left that game after just a couple shifts.
“One-on-one is the most important for me, that’s when it usually hurts,” Grabovski said. “I feel much better than I did before.”
Oates said he saw Grabovski fall at the end of Thursday’s practice and is not sure he’s ready to return to the lineup.
“For him, he’s got to feel mentally ready that he can play,” Oates said. “I’m not totally sure he’s there. We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
Hillen joins teammate Marcus Johansson and former teammate Marty Erat on the list of Capitals who have been injured in collisions with Ovechkin. Johansson suffered a concussion when he ran into Ovechkin during training camp last year and Erat was knocked out of the playoffs after running into Ovechkin during the Rangers’ series.
“It’s a fast game,” Oates said. “Ovi was wound up. He wanted the puck sooner. He had to cut back and re-route. Jack should have seen him and didn’t. It happened fast. He got hit by a truck.”