As Washington Capitals center Lars Eller trudged through the past 10 days, missing four games with a nagging lower body injury, he still showed signs of recovery. He participated in practices and a morning skate last week then, after the team took two days off, returned for practice on Tuesday.
But as the Capitals prepare for the New Jersey Devils in back-to-back home games on Thursday and Friday, Eller remains the team’s most glaring question mark. The 31-year-old did not practice on Wednesday, and coach Peter Laviolette did not elaborate on whether his absence was because of maintenance or because of a setback. Eller, who was injured March 13 against Philadelphia, remains day-to-day, Laviolette said.
Washington last played Saturday night in a loss to the New York Rangers and had a long four-day layoff this week. During that time, captain Alex Ovechkin (lower body) took a maintenance day Tuesday but returned to practice Wednesday, and Laviolette sounded hopeful Ovechkin would play against the Devils on Thursday night.
“The fact that he was out there, that’s always a positive,” Laviolette said of Ovechkin. “So I can’t say definitely one way or the other, but it was great to have him out there today.”
The layoff has offered a much-needed reprieve for the Capitals. Up to that point, Washington had played 10 games in 18 days in March, including two back-to-backs. The Capitals went 8-2 in that stretch, which included a seven-game winning streak, and the staff opted to give the team two full days off on Sunday and Monday before preparing for the final 25 games of the season.
“We need rest,” goalie Vitek Vanecek said. “We will be [playing] 15 games in 30 days. It’s good that we get two days off.”
The past four days was welcome rest for everyone in the organization — Laviolette said coaches took the time off without talking and the video staff took a break from its never-ending grind. Players spent time with their loved ones. Others caught up on sleep, played video games and temporarily withdrew from the normal mind-set of preparing for a game every other day.
With 25 games left and a playoff push ahead, Washington is inching closer to full-strength — it has gone 11-4-3 in games without its full lineup available this season — and forward Tom Wilson returned in Saturday’s loss to the Rangers after serving a seven-game suspension.
Without Eller, who has been a durable player throughout his NHL career, Washington’s lack of depth at center has shown; forward T.J. Oshie has been the starting third-line center when Eller has missed previous games because of injury.
Whether Eller is available Thursday night or not, the rested Capitals are expecting an immediate challenge to begin the final leg of the regular season, hosting a Devils team that has gone 4-1-1 in their last six games.
“We have to be ready to play. I guess a little bit of my thought process is, trying to make sure we’re up to speed after four days off. You decompress a little bit,” Laviolette said. “We have to make sure we’re ready to go, because it will go quick.”