Alex Ovechkin was back on the ice, skating through Monday's practice in a light blue jersey that looked more suitable for Chapel Hill than the nation's capital. He was done with the week off he needed to heal an undisclosed injury and pronounced himself "ready to go," possibly as soon as Tuesday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"I was skating over there, like, to see if it bothered me on the ice," he said. "It's not bothering me."
Coach Bruce Boudreau was more cautious, saying Ovechkin could perhaps return by the end of the week.
The coach has no need to rush. The Capitals are doing fine as they head into the regular season homestretch, even if they've deviated to the nth degree from the script anyone would have written for them back in September.
Ovechkin has scored only 29 goals — far below his usual pace — and has missed the last three games to recover from what Boudreau said was an unspecified "nagging ailment" that had apparently been bothering the star left wing for months. Defensemen Mike Green and Tom Poti have missed huge chunks of time. The power play has plummeted from first in the league last season to 21st this season. The battle for No. 1 goalie hasn't been settled because the top contenders kept getting hurt.
Offer that set of scenarios to anyone at the start of the season, and the response would be: "The Capitals are in trouble."
Yet they just finished a 4-2 road swing and sit in second place in the Eastern Conference. The defense that was so suspect at times last season has improved by nearly half a goal per game — from 2.77 to 2.33, or from 16th best to fourth best in the league.
"It's been an up-and-down season," center Brooks Laich said, "and it's probably played out differently than most people had expected. But the important thing is you're in the right position when the playoffs come around, and I think we'll be there."
Laich is the first to say that the Capitals likely can't achieve their main goal — the Stanley Cup — without Ovechkin and the other players who have been sidelined. Monday was a significant step forward for two of them.
For all the caginess about Ovechkin's injury — it's normal for teams not to go into specifics this time of year — it does seem as if he will return within a matter of days. Center Jason Arnott, a key trade deadline pickup who has missed six straight games with a lower body injury, also returned to practice and is optimistic that he will play by the end of the week.
Things are less clear for Green and Poti. Poti took part in practice but can't seem to shake a groin injury.
"I've set a couple of deadlines, but didn't reach them," said Poti, who has played in only 21 games this season. "It's definitely getting better, but it's not where it needs to be right now. I'm shooting to definitely try to play some games before the playoffs."
Green is still dealing with concussion symptoms, having taken two blows to the head in February — a puck off of a slap shot and an elbow from Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers. Green hasn't played since Feb. 25 and skated for about a half-hour on Monday.
"Hopefully this week I'll be able to get out and do a full practice," Green said, "and get that under my belt so that I can move forward and take some tests, so that I can get back in the game."
At least the goalies all seem to be healthy for a change. Semyon Varlamov returned last week after a lenghty absence, and Michal Neuvirth was back Monday after illness forced him out of the lineup at the tail end of the road trip. Braden Holtby, the fill-in who has arguably outplayed them both, has been shipped back to Hershey of the AHL.
Top-tier teams like to be more settled as the playoffs draw near, but last year's Capitals, as Ovechkin pointed out, might have been too settled. They lasted only one round.
"Last year we dominate everybody in the season and we play unbelievable and give everything that we have," Ovechkin said, "and sometimes in the playoffs, like, we don't have any emotions, any power, because we gave away too early. Right now I think everybody concentrate to do better in playoffs."