by Kevin Klein
featured photograpy by Clyde Caplan/clydeorama.com
In 2009, Mike Green was on top of the world. He anchored the blueline on the best team in hockey. He had notched 31 goals and 73 points, and he had done so in only 68 games played. He was nominated for the Norris Trophy, given to the best defenseman in the league and— by virtue of the NHL’s pedigree— the world.
That year the Capitals suffered their most disappointing playoff exit since a Stanley Cup sweep against Detroit in 1998. But for Mike Green, the biggest disappointments were yet to come.
Green remained relatively healthy the following season, playing 75 games en route to a second consecutive conference-topping regular season. He even topped his previous season’s point total, notching 76 points, this time built on a 57 assist foundation.
In 2010, things took a dip. Elbows and pucks found Green’s head with alarming frequency, and as a result he played in only 49 games on the season. Little did he know, things would only get worse the next year, when an uncooperative groin and sports hernia surgery kept him out for 50 games—more than half the season. The 83 games missed from 2010-2012 were one game greater than the entirety of an NHL full-season schedule.
Washington fans were down on Green. His previous Norris nomination seemed like it would be the height of his career. He was fragile as an ice sculpture. He had the flexibility of the wishbone, and his brain was more likely to swell than a threatened pufferfish.
But Green, who was once billed in a popular branding movement as one of the Capitals “young guns”, is healthy now. We knew that before the season started, but now that we’ve seen the defenseman on ice for five games, we really know it.
Green has been the player that Washington faithful grew to love before the big, fat, ugly injury bug bit him right where it hurts most. Green has tallied 139:24 minutes on the ice through these games, trailing only Dion Phaneuf in total TOI for skaters who have played only five games. He’s third on the team in shots, and fourth in points. But it’s not necessarily the numbers the signal the return of the Mike Green we once knew.
It’s the confidence.
In years past— the ones shortened and hampered by injury— Green’s game seemed to be, for absence of a better word, lacking. There was just something missing. You could tell, just by watching. He wasn’t skating like the Mike Green we know, a torrent through the neutral zone, happy to keep the puck on his stick down below the blue line, even though positional convention told that this was unwise. The old Green made it work. The injury-riddled Green? Well, he didn’t often try, and when he did, the results weren’t pretty. At times, the old Green couldn’t even seem to keep the puck on his stick. Stickhandle blunders and resultant turnovers were not uncommon, and his passes were often errant or forced.
It seemed, almost, as if Green’s uncanny offensive intuition had disappeared, like a shadow in the dark.
But where there is darkness, there soon will be light (except probably in Columbus).
Out of the 2013 gate, Green has arguably been the Caps’ best player. Despite his whopping ice time, Green has only given the puck away once. For a blueliner who carries the biscuit as much as he does, this is a testament to his strong stick, and good decisions. His plus/minus is at 0, but considering the Capitals have allowed a conference high 19 goals, while only scoring 11, one might consider that a success. Only three Capitals are on the plus side of the plus/minus statistic: Joel Ward (+4), Mike Ribeiro (+3), and Jason Chimera (+3).
It was Mike Green who did a disservice to hockey writers across North America, by sliding a puck across the powerplay-tilted ice to Alex Ovechkin, who one-timed it home, vintage like, past a clueless Ryan Miller on Sunday afternoon. The goal was Ovechkin’s first, and it was to many journalistic narratives what a silver stake be to a sneering vampire’s heart. The goal was reminiscent of what we saw from Green/Ovechkin on Capitals powerplays for years. Those days had seemingly come to an end after 2010— coincidentally, when Green’s injury struggles began.
But these first five games give Capitals’ fans hope that perhaps there still exists a burning ember from the fire that was 2009— that was Green finding Ovechkin open atop the left circle for a one-timer, at least once per man advantage. The goals haven’t yet come in troves, but there have been flashes of opportunity. Although Ovechkin hasn’t been lighting up the stat sheet, he has found himself alone on the ice more often than he did under Dale Hunter, or even during the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure. This could be a product of Adam Oates’ new powerplay approach. Or it could be a product of Mike Green being viewed as a major threat from the blue line once more. Or it could be a combination of the two.
Green may have knocked the rust off a bit quicker than his teammates— after the first two games, in which the Capitals allowed a total of 10 goals— Mike Green has been a harbinger of good tidings when on the ice. This past week he was on the ice for five goals for, and only one against.
On a team that through five games has wallowed in confusion and disjointedness, Mike Green has been as a stout rock— something to cling to as the rapids of a fast-moving early season threatened to sweep the Capitals away.
Staying healthy will be key for Mike Green. But the 27 year old defenseman isn’t shying away from contact, or the puck— he’s notched 8 hits through 5 games, and has also put his body in the way of 8 shots. This isn’t the behavior of the tentative Mike Green of season’s past. This is a fresh, reinvigorated Mike Green.
For a team that itself is in need of invigoration, perhaps they should look no further than the play of their top blueliner.
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