Depth on defense helps them survive injuries

The injuries have hit one after another on the blueline, and somehow the Capitals just plug in new pieces and keep chugging.

From Opening Night on Jan. 19, when defenseman Jack Hillen was checked hard into the boards in Tampa Bay and suffered a shoulder injury, Washington has had to mix and match its defensemen. The lone constants in the lineup have been Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

Otherwise, almost every blueliner has experienced some physical ailment. Mike Green (groin) missed 13 of 15 games before finally returning to the lineup Thursday against Winnipeg. Tomas Kundratek, a rookie who was playing top-line minutes, has missed the last six games with a right knee sprain. John Erskine (upper-body injury) has been out nine games since March 9 when he took a slash to the wrist in the first period of a game against the New York Islanders.

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That's not all. Tom Poti (back) has sat the four games since March 17 against Buffalo. Hillen's injury knocked him from the lineup for seven weeks. He returned March 16 against Boston. Even Dmitry Orlov, who hadn't played a game in the NHL this season until last Tuesday in Pittsburgh, missed almost three months at Hershey of the American Hockey League with a concussion.

"We definitely have a lot of defensemen," Erskine said. "But it just shows guys work hard, and when it's their chance to get put in the lineup, they're playing good and making big plays for us."

It's hard to say the Caps are even getting healthy. Because while Green and Orlov rejoined the team last week, Washington is still waiting on Erskine, Kundratek and Poti. There was even sufficient depth on the blueline that it could waive veteran Roman Hamrlik this month and consistently scratch Jeff Schultz.

AHL recall Steve Oleksy hadn't played in an NHL game before March 5 and has suddenly become a mainstay. Not even on the radar before the season, he had to play a team-high 27:55 in a game against Carolina on March 14. Cameron Schilling, another AHL recall, made his NHL debut two days earlier against Carolina.

"It's just part of the evolution of the game. It makes decisions for the coach, the general manager," Caps coach Adam Oates said. "What are you gonna do? Great opportunity for those guys that they showed they can play in the NHL. There's guys that have seniority in a sense. Just the ever-changing part of the game."

Erskine said after an optional practice Monday that he hopes to play by this weekend. Kundratek is "really close," according to Oates, though he might not be ready to play against the Islanders on Tuesday. While their teammates were on a long road trip to Pittsburgh, Winnipeg and New York, he and Erskine spent their time skating at the organization's Arlington practice facility. Poti, meanwhile, is further away from a return.

"It always stinks watching," Poti said. "I think the three guys that got called up, they've been playing really well. [Schilling] had a good game [March 12], and those guys played well. We kind of threw them into the fire a little bit, and they've been playing pretty good."