ARLINGTON, Va. -- Brooks Laich is so highly regarded in the Washington Capitals' dressing room that even the team captain and face of the franchise doesn't hesitate or stutter when referring to him as "our leader."
"Off the ice and on the ice," Alex Ovechkin continued. "We need him badly."
The Capitals had him for about 10 minutes Thursday morning before Laich gave the team its first "uh-oh" moment of the season. He walked off the ice and did not return because of pain he felt in his left hip flexor.
Laich missed all but nine games last season with a nagging groin injury that eventually required surgery and forced him to also miss the Capitals' seven-game run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. To see him go off with another injury after barely breaking a sweat in training camp was difficult to watch and somewhat emotional to the guys who know what he went through last season.
"I feel for him more than us right now," Capitals coach Adam Oates said.
The good news is that Laich isn't too concerned about his latest setback and referred to himself as day-to-day.
Even better news is Laich insists that the new injury is unrelated to the groin injury he had on his right side last season. He said he tweaked his hip flexor last Thursday in his first workout at Kettler Capitals Iceplex after returning from his summer home in Saskatchewan. He stayed off the ice until Tuesday and began acupuncture treatments.
Laich said he had no issues when he skated Tuesday. He added that he was fine going through fitness testing on Wednesday, when he also went through a particularly aggressive acupuncture treatment, which caused inflammation and may have led to the discomfort he felt Thursday.
"It doesn't seem serious," general manager George McPhee said. "Hopefully it's a day or two."
The Capitals won't sweat even if Laich's injury keeps him out longer than that, but they need him to be healthy and in the lineup when the season begins Oct. 1 at United Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Laich is Washington's most versatile forward. He's targeted to be the Capitals' third-line left wing and play on average 20 minutes a game with time spent on the power play and penalty kill. He can slide over to center or right wing depending on how Oates wants to use him. He can be the guy Oates puts out for defensive zone faceoffs late in games. He would have been the team's No. 2 center had McPhee not signed Mikhail Grabovski last month.
"He can play almost anywhere you need him," McPhee said. "He's a good player, we missed him last year. He's a good veteran guy. We signed him for a reason, to keep him around for six years because he's an effective player for us on and off the ice."
Laich missed the first 28 games last season and Washington was 12-15-1. He played nine straight games from March 19-April 4 and the Capitals went 6-2-1.
Laich didn't play again after that. The Capitals finished the regular season on a hot streak with nine wins in their last 11 games, but they couldn't get past the Rangers in the first round. No one in the dressing room disputes that Laich may have been the difference in Washington's inability to advance into the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"He came at a time where we were turning the corner and playing well, and he added another dimension for us," Oates said. "He's a very good hockey player, and I thought we upgraded when he was in the lineup."
Being out of the lineup crushed Laich's psyche. He said hockey is the best thing he has in his life and it was tough to cope with it being taken away from him for most of last season.
Laich had played in all but four games from 2007-12. He played in all 82 games in four of the five seasons leading up to last season.
"It's a completely helpless feeling," Laich said of sitting out. "You try to support your guys but it's just not the same."
It didn't help that Laich was struggling to get through a regular day because of all the pain he had in his lower body.
"Completely miserable, all year, terrible," Laich said. "Daily living, rolling over in bed, getting out of a chair, getting in and out of your vehicle were nightmares. That takes a huge toll on you."
It was all forgotten roughly halfway through his offseason training program, when Laich sent a text message to McPhee and Oates that simply read, "100 percent."
He still feels that way on the right side of his body.
"I have full power, flexibility, stride, everything," Laich said. "There is no fear with anything related to what went on last year."
But now he has a new problem to deal with, and it's taking a toll on his psyche again.
"My favorite part about playing hockey is skating," Laich said. "That's my favorite aspect of the game and when you can't do it, or are limited to doing it and going through pain doing it, it's very, very frustrating. But this isn't anywhere near what I went through last year."
The Capitals are crossing their fingers, hoping it doesn't get to that point.
Laich is too valuable to this team.
"It's disappointing," Ovechkin said. "Hopefully he's going to be OK."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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