The Capitals forwards were rotating in and out of 5-on-5 battle drills Saturday when Brooks Laich jumped into the rotation.
Normally, the 29-year-old forward would body check his opponent into the boards, separate him from the puck, and skate away with it.
But for the first time in his NHL career, Laich’s body is unable to do what his mind asks of it Slowed by a groin injury that has hampered him for almost three months, Laich hesitated, went into the corner cautiously, lost the puck and skated away shaking his head.
“There's a lot of injuries you can play through -- and I've played through a lot in my career -- but a lot of those are just about handling the pain,” Laich said. “You are still able to be effective if you can control the pain.
"The injury that I currently have is a little different. If I was on the ice [playing], I wouldn't be effective for our team. I wouldn't be able to help our team win. And I would never go out on the ice if I was going to be detrimental to our team.
“Right now, I would love to play, but I can't physically help our team win. I’m doing a disservice by playing. It’s not a question of how tough you are. It’s very limiting.”
Laich has been skating with the Caps since Jan. 31 and was cleared for contact while the club was in Florida earlier this week. But his progress has been minimal and no timetable for his return has been established.
“I’ve already done that numerous times and it hasn’t happened,” Laich said of setting target dates for his return. “I think if you do that and you don’t hit it you go through unnecessary frustration. I’m trying to make each day positive instead of hoping to get there when it’s not right.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates said he can sympathize with Laich, who had missed a total of four games in his previous five seasons. Oates endured two groin injuries that sheved him for extended periods in his career. He said the final hurdle is often the hardest to clear.
“That’s a huge, huge moment for any player when he’s coming off an injury, to go to the next gear, and we told him to be cautious about it,” Oates said.
Laich said he and the Caps “haven’t really” explored the possibility of surgery, saying he believes avoiding surgery can extend a player’s career.
"The toughest part is just missing playing games and even missing practice," Laich said. "It's the passion in my life to play hockey and that kind of gets taken away from you, it's really tough to take and really frustrating.
“ You try to do your best to get back as quick as you can and sometimes there's things that are out of your control. Sometimes time is your enemy, too. It's been the hardest thing I think I've ever gone through in my hockey career."