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Poti's return to health a bonus for Capitals

by Corey Masisak
WASHINGTON -- A couple of the Washington Capitals knew their injuries would keep them out of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic well in advance of the event at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field on New Year's Day.

Tom Poti had to wait to see if the symptoms from a concussion he suffered in his team's meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins nine days prior to the Winter Classic would subside in time for him to play. The ability to hope ended up making it more difficult when the final decision to skip the game had to be made.

"It was pretty close. I was waking up every day and hoping I would feel a little bit better and be able to play," Poti said. "It was just a tough situation. We knew the conditions with the ice weren't going to be great, so I think it was a smarter move not to play, obviously. It was very hard to watch, but it was the smart thing to do.

"It was tough. It was a hard game not to be a part of. At the same time, we just wanted to concentrate on my health and make sure I'm ready for the most important games come the end of the season. It was tough to sit and watch, but I was glad with the outcome. That's all that matters, that we won. I was rooting for the guys pretty hard."

Poti's season has been beset with injuries -- namely a groin problem that has flared up on a few occasions, plus the recent concussion. He's missed more than half of Washington's games, but his return has allowed coach Bruce Boudreau to deploy his new-look defense corps at full strength for the first time since the addition of Scott Hannan on Nov. 30.

"He's very calm with the puck and makes good decisions -- nice and simple. Playing with him is very easy. It is always nice having him in there in a little bit of a leadership role and he's so good on the penalty kill." -- Jeff Schultz on fellow defenseman Tom Poti

Before Poti returned Jan. 4 against Tampa Bay, the Capitals had not had their top six defensemen healthy for an entire game since Hannan joined the team. Poti was a healthy scratch Tuesday at Florida -- a nod to how well John Erskine has played this season more than a knock against Poti's work -- but his return has brought an interesting wrinkle with just how Boudreau will arrange his defensemen.

Jeff Schultz had been Mike Green's partner when both have been healthy for much of the past two seasons, but while Schultz was out with a broken thumb, Green began to develop some quality chemistry with Hannan. When Schultz came back, Boudreau put him with Poti.

If Green and Hannan continue to click, the Poti-Schultz duo could be together for a while as well. Washington's other pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner has been such a hit it seems unlikely they will be split up unless there is another rash of injuries.

"I've mostly played with Mike and everybody knows what Mike does, but Tom kind of flies under the radar," Schultz said. "He's very calm with the puck and makes good decisions -- nice and simple. Playing with him is very easy. It is always nice having him in there in a little bit of a leadership role and he's so good on the penalty kill."

Added Alzner: "That’s the thing -- people don't give him enough credit. He's so smart out on the ice. He's not flashy but has a good set of hands and makes some really nice plays out there. He's also tough to play against. I hear other guys say it all the time, that they don't like to play against him. If you do anything around Tom, he's going to let you know about it."

Poti and Schultz played together for a game in late November against Tampa Bay, and it might have been one of Poti's best games with the Capitals since he joined the club at the start of the 2007-08 season. Their first game back together also was against the Lightning, and it was another strong outing for the pair -- until they were on the ice and both at fault for Tampa Bay's overtime goal.

When Poti plays with Schultz (or Hannan), it offers him a chance to be a little more offensive minded. While Poti evolved into Washington's top defensive defenseman after signing with the franchise, he had been known more for his work at the offensive end earlier in his career.

"It is definitely more of a chance for me to do some things offensively where I don't always have to stay back and be a defensive guy and concentrate on that," Poti said. "It allows me to do some things and try to join the rush more. Wherever they put me and whoever they put me with, I just try to do my best."

Poti has proven to be a valuable addition since signing a four-year, $14 million deal in July 2007. He would have been an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, but he and the Capitals decided not to wait and he signed a two-year, $5.5 million extension during training camp.

The 33-year-old defensemen has seen less ice time this season, and the continued rise of Carlson and Alzner likely will keep him from being counted on for many 23- 25-minute games in the future. Poti was one of the team's top two defensemen against Montreal in the playoffs last season (along with Carlson), and another strong showing in the postseason likely would have led to an interesting market for his services in July.

"I sat down with my wife and agent and decided it is a really good fit for me here," Poti said. "We have a really good chance to win -- I think one of the best chances of anybody in the League to win the Cup, and not just this one year but for years to come. I want to be on a winner -- I haven't really been part of a winner in my career and I'm obviously not getting any younger. I'm not afraid to leave some money on the table to play for a winner and stay in an environment that I enjoy."
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