Capitals forward Brooks Laich will miss his sixth consecutive game with a groin injury when the Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. When or if he will return again this season remains unclear.

Laich will not skate again with his teammates until he is “100-percent pain free,” according to Washington coach Adam Oates. Laich had earlier missed 28 games with a groin injury originally sustained while playing in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. Laich returned on March 19 and played in nine games before being re-injured on April 4 against the New York Islanders.

“We came to the conclusion that we want him to be pain free before he goes onto the ice again,” Oates said. “So he’s working as hard as he can to become pain free. We don’t want any setbacks. That’s what he’s trying to do.”

Laich spent almost four weeks on an off-ice strengthening program starting in late February before feeling healthy enough to return. But it didn’t last. His minutes increased from 12:51 in his first game back against Pittsburgh to more than 19 minutes within five games. Laich played 20:28 against Philadelphia on March 31. That dropped to 17:02 on April 2 against Carolina and finally 13:59 against the Islanders.

“I think [Laich] thought he was pain free at the beginning and then all of the sudden we – I shouldn’t really speak too much for him – but I think it was more fatigue,” Oates said. “We thought it was fatigue from lack of use and just lost some strength and maybe he was aggravating it.”

Oates said he considers a return for the Stanley Cup playoffs a legitimate goal for Laich. But he also conceded that there is no well to tell how the injury will respond and when Laich will feel at full strength. It appears at the very least the Caps must get by the final six regular-season games without one of their most versatile players. It could take a long playoff run to give Laich time enough to heal. And, of course, Washington has to make it first. The Caps currently lead the Southeast Division by four points and are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but still have work left to do to fend off the second-place Winnipeg Jets.

“[Laich is] one of our hardest workers, he’s one of our most consistent players every night,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “He’s that guy that always wants to be on the ice, always wants to be involved. Maybe sometimes to a fault he tries to do too much out of himself. But that’s a good quality to have is you want a guy that wants to be used, wants to be in every situation and guys look up to his work ethic.”

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