ARLINGTON, Va. -- This season the Washington Capitals have their deepest and most talented defense corps since the early 1990s, when Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate and Calle Johansson were lighting up opposing goaltenders, and maybe the best group since three future members of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Larry Murphy played together in the 1980s.
Still, if there was any takeaway from Washington's recent trip to Western Canada, it was a reminder of just how valuable Mike Green remains to this club. Green missed both games on the trip -- a 2-1 loss at Edmonton and a 7-4 defeat in Vancouver -- and the Capitals' perfect start to the 2010-11 season was over.
Green suffered a sprained ankle Oct. 22 against Detroit when his foot turned awkwardly when he fell after taking a puck in the face late in the first period. He'll miss his third straight game Tuesday when the Capitals play Anaheim at Verizon Center (7:30 p.m. ET, Versus, TSN2), but he could be back this weekend.
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 6
SOG: 17 | +/-: 2
SOG: 17 | +/-: 2
The Capitals missed Green in different ways during the trip. Washington put 35 shots on net against Edmonton, and Nikolai Khabibulin's sparking effort in goal clearly was a huge factor in the Oilers' victory.
It was a game where the Capitals could have used Green's touch at the offensive end. The Capitals had five chances on the power play, including three in the final period. One well-placed shot or pass from Green and the Capitals collect at least a point.
"We miss him most on the power play," veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. "He had such a good game against Detroit (a 7-1 win Oct. 22). He can shoot the puck and it doesn't have to be hard. He can just find that spot. We had some chances, but definitely on the (power play) we miss him big time."
Offense was not a problem in Vancouver, but defense was. While the Oilers took advantage of too many penalties taken by Washington to score a pair of power-play goals, the Canucks took it to the Capitals at even strength.
"One thing that makes his defense really good is his ability to get the puck out of the zone," Alzner said. "He's not like a lot of us, me in particular -- I know when I'm under pressure I normally just put it off the glass and out of the zone, or I rim it out. If he's under pressure, he will hold onto it for an extra second and make a pass out of the zone. That is something we really need against a team like Vancouver that pressures hard with two or three guys. If you can make that pass past them, it changes the whole momentum of the game. That's where we missed him a lot against Vancouver."
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That may have been true a few seasons ago, but Green has made significant strides in that department. His offensive numbers may not be what they once were, but part of that has come from his commitment to play better defense.
"He's much better -- it is not just offense," said Hamrlik, who was partnered with Green at the start of the season. "He has focused more on his defense. It is similar to me when I first started playing. The first couple years I was just good on the offense, but when you get older, I was learning to be better on defense and try to play good defense. In Edmonton, Kevin Lowe taught me how to play in front of the net and Darryl Sutter with Calgary showed me lots of good things. In Montreal there was a good coaching staff, too. As you get older, you can still enjoy and play on offense, but he has focused more on defense. He's still young and he's such a good skater, so he can be the first in the front and can still be first in the back. It has been fun playing with him."
Another reason the Capitals have missed Green dearly is the team's depth beyond the NHL level is not quite what it once was. NHL veterans John Erskine and Tom Poti have been hurt, and the club doesn't have NHL-ready prospects at the American Hockey League level to call on like it did when Alzner and John Carlson were not yet regulars.
Dmitri Orlov is close to being that type of player and could see time in Washington later this season, but the Capitals called up Sean Collins this time around to replace Green. Erskine was cleared to play this week for the first time after offseason shoulder surgery, and he will replace Collins in the lineup against the Ducks.
"We've been waiting a while to get him back," coach Bruce Boudreau said of Erskine. "I hope there's not too much rust on him, but I'm sure there will be some -- just not too much."
Green's last game was a vintage performance. He stayed in the game after injuring his ankle and finished with 2 goals, 2 assists and strong work in his own end.
It was the type of effort that made him a two-time Norris Trophy finalist, and if he can continue with that type of production, he could be one again in the near future -- and this time around it will be harder for critics to point to his supposed defensive shortcomings.
This edition of the Capitals has lots of talent on the back end -- Carlson, Hamrlik and Dennis Wideman can provide some of the offensive punch with Green out, while Alzner, Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz are solid defenders.
As Alzner put it, "(Green) is still our best defenseman," and this road trip showed just how valuable he remains to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
"He is a big key for our team, especially on the power play," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "Of course you can see how he is growing up and get more mature. I think everybody realizes it is time to grow. You can't stay in one place -- you have to get better in different places."