The news on Alex Ovechkin came early Monday, before the first whistle blew at either the Kettler Capitals Iceplex or the Virtua Health Flyers Skate Zone. The Capitals announced on their website that Ovechkin was battling a nagging injury and would not be making the trip to Philadelphia for Tuesday's nationally televised game (7:30 p.m. ET, VERSUS, TSN2).
It will be the first game Ovechkin will miss this season, and the surprising news obviously gave way to questions.
How long has his injury been bothering him? When will he be able to play again? How serious are we talking here?
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, standing in front of the inquisitive media in Arlington, Va., did his best to answer them without divulging too much information.
"He's had some nagging injuries for a while now that have bothered him, and like you've read we only have one game in six days," Boudreau said according to the Washington Post. "So we thought this would be the best time to get completely healed up so by the time he starts playing again he'll be 100-percent healthy."
It is true that a quirk in the Caps' schedule has them playing just once in a six-day span, but with nine games left before the playoffs and Ovechkin playing his best hockey of the season, the optics of "nagging injuries" forcing him out of the lineup don't look great.
"OK, injury," Boudreau said, correcting himself while downplaying the news on Ovechkin and not revealing anything about his ailment all at the same time. "He's probably got more aches and pains than the normal guy because he, A) is a physical player, and B) he gets hit more often. But he's just sore."
Sigh of relief? Well, yeah, unless you consider Boudreau's answer to this hypothetical question:
Would Ovechkin play if this was a playoff game?
"I don't know -- probably not," the coach replied.
Then it must be fairly serious, right?
"He's sore," Boudreau said, repeating himself now. "It's going to be maybe seven to 10 days."
Ovechkin was not made available to the media Monday, but Boudreau said he did not fight the decision to shut him down for Tuesday's game. Boudreau, speaking for Ovechkin, said the Capitals' captain "wants to feel better."
"He doesn't like waking up every morning and feeling like he's got to go through an hour of just doing stuff to get ready to practice or to play," Boudreau continued. "He wants to feel healthy. The playoffs are very important to him and he wants to be at his best when we arrive there."
The Capitals have put themselves in a good spot with nine games left in the regular season. They've won 10 of their last 11 games since getting beat 6-0 by the Rangers on Feb. 25, and they've taken a five-point lead on Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division race. If they beat the Flyers in regulation Tuesday, the Capitals will remain second in the Eastern Conference but tie the Flyers in points.
Philadelphia still has two games in hand, but no team in the East has been as hot as the Capitals.
Ovechkin is a big reason for that. He has 5 goals and 15 points during the Caps' 10-1-0 run. Going back further, he has 8 goals and 21 points in his last 16 games; Washington is 13-3-0 in that span.
Green remains out with a concussion, and although he's eligible to be activated off long-term injured reserve Tuesday, the Capitals still have not offered a timetable for his return. Arnott skated on his own prior to Monday's practice but is not close to returning. The Washington Post is reporting a groin injury has caused him to miss the last three games. Fehr is day-to-day with a shoulder injury.
The Flyers' only ailment is Chris Pronger's well-documented hand injury and subsequent surgery last week. Pronger likely won't play again until next month, but the Flyers have picked up eight of a possible 10 points since he last played to hold off the surging Capitals.
The tough stuff for Philadelphia comes this week with Washington and Pittsburgh coming to Wells Fargo Center for key games. Granted, neither the Caps nor the Penguins are bringing their superstars (Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby), but that doesn't take away from the meaning of the two games.
Philadelphia, which so far is the only Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff berth, has a chance this week to give itself some much-needed breathing room in the conference and divisional races. A win against the Capitals would give the Flyers a four-point lead in the conference with two games in hand.
The Flyers also are looking at these two games as a chance to re-establish their dominant ways.
They're 4-0-2 in their last six games, but three of the wins have come against teams currently out of the playoff race (Florida twice, Toronto), and they needed a shootout to win the other (Dallas). They have two recent losses to Atlanta -- one after blowing a 3-0 third-period lead.
"We've never talked about clinching a playoff berth," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said according to Philly.com. "We've always talked about home-ice, all rounds, starting in our building, Game 7 if it comes to that. That's why we continue to push."
The Capitals will have to push without Ovechkin for the time being. While alarming, there wasn't an overwhelming sense of concern coming out of Arlington on Monday.
"He just needs to take some time off to get completely healed up," Caps GM George McPhee said.
I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.
— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic