The prospect is very real that Dennis Wideman, the Capitals’ very best defenseman, won’t play hockey again this season. And that would be an enormous setback for a surging hockey club plausibly optimistic — if it somehow can regain some semblance of blueline health — about winning an underwhelming Eastern conference this spring.
The injury bug — infestation, really — that’s afflicting the Capitals’ blueline this spring is unlike anything I can ever recall a team’s unit enduring. Midway through Saturday night’s game, right as Tyler Sloan exited the ice for a trainer’s inspection, the team had just as many blueliners dressed (five) as it did on examining tables. The good news is that both Mike Green and Tom Poti appear to be near ready to report for duty, finally fit. Both could play pivotal roles for the team this postseason. But the loss of Wideman can’t be overstated.
Since being acquired from Florida at the trade deadline, Wideman established himself as Bruce Boudreau’s most reliable rearguard. His core stats — a goal and six assists, while skating a +7 in 14 games — only tell a portion of his versatility and utility. More telling: an average of more than 24 minutes of ice time a night. He was used in all situations by Boudreau, and he exhibited inordinate poise with the puck, precision with his passing, and most especially deft defensive instincts. In his own end Wideman was virtually flawless, and everywhere else on the ice he was effective. He was acquired as a bit of insurance policy for an injured Mike Green; he surely paid out a hefty claim.
His addition, coupled with Scott Hannan’s arrival last fall, John Carlson’s precocious emergence, and Karl Alzner’s rapid maturation, wholly re-oriented the stature of the Capitals’ blueline. With Mike Green’s likely return, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the Caps boasting every bit as formidable a blueline as Philly this spring. Which is to say: one of the best in the entire league.
Which makes the loss of Wideman double discouraging. You’ve perhaps noticed that in just the couple of games without Wideman things haven’t looked nearly as tidy in the Capitals’ end. Should the Caps advance to an Eastern conference finals showdown with the Flyers and lose in a lengthy series, without Wideman, we’ll necessarily wonder what if. He had been that dramatic an addition.
It’s telling that we’re able to talk about this injury in the detail we can: NHL hockey clubs, and the Capitals foremost among them, are notoriously tight-lipped about injuries generally but especially at this time of year. But the severity of Wideman’s injury is such that it cannot be silenced into submission. Last week, Wideman updated his teammates in vivid detail about his condition, apparently providing visuals with his handheld. Wideman has a hematoma somewhere on his leg — and where it’s located matters greatly. We’re pretty sure he’s been hospitalized ever since he was hit by Carolina’s Tuomu Ruutu last Tuesday night.
In its simplest understanding, a hematoma is a hemorrhage of blood outside of the capillaries that carry it. It’s a bleeding within the soft tissue of a limb — in Wideman’s case, his leg. The injury has been discussed in little detail until yesterday, when, to their credit, Sky Kerstein and Ben Raby of 106.7 the Fan went on their weekly Sunday morning radio show, ‘The Morning Skate,’ and interviewed Dr. Henry Wicker, general surgeon at Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, about hematomas. I’d caution against your listening to the segment — or reading much beyond here — if you’re at all squeamish about dramatic and discomforting medical conditions.
Wicker yesterday told the radio reporters that a hematoma is usually the result of a “bad crush injury” to the flesh. It’s usually the result of many injured blood vessels. In its least worrisome condition a hematoma is simply a bad bruise; at the other end of the medical spectrum, it can lead to an actual loss of limb. On 106.7 yesterday, the discussion, gleaning what’s been discussed by Capitals’ players last week and the fact that Wideman apparently is still hospitalized, suggested that the defenseman is sure to be sidelined weeks, and that there is the very real possibility that his season is over. Some hematomas require surgery, which of course is invasive of already damaged flesh. Wicker told Kerstein and Raby that if Wideman required surgery he’d almost certainly be lost for the balance of the season, in light of the stress that’s placed on legs in skating.
I wanted a second opinion, so last night I rang a high school classmate who performed far better in math and science than I did, and today holds an MD. Here’s what Doc Mario told me: most typically, a hematoma is akin to a charley horse — quite painful, and quite colorful. A deep thigh bruise, for instance. The big problem can come if the injury is located near a joint. It sure looked like Ruutu’s hit came awfully close to Wideman’s knee. The good news: most often, my classmate doc said, hematomas heal themselves, absent invasive procedures. Ice initially, heat pads thereafter. But no medical professional can offer any assurances absent an examination and access to medical records, and the extent of Wideman’s hematoma (“football sized” was the characterization of some of Wideman’s teammates, apparently) led my doc to wonder about Wideman’s predisposition to bleeding and or previous injuries in his leg.
This injury is jarring not only because is deprives the Capitals of their best rearguard but because the causal hit itself was so seemingly innocuous. Ruutu’s hit was clean, and to the naked eye of the non-devastating variety. Wideman was just oddly angled at its impact. The more you learn about hematomas the more you wonder why they don’t occur with more frequency in our sport. Mercifully they don’t.
So we’ll cross our fingers and hope that my Doc Mario is more accurate than Doc Wicker. For the time being — and it’s probably safe to assume at this point that Wideman will miss at least some of round one — the Capitals will need a healthy Mike Green making a positive impact. What we don’t want to have happen is for a promising season to be shortchanged by a devastating and freak injury to a key cog. It was deep in the 1985-86 campaign that Bengt Gustaffson crossed over the New York Islanders’ blueline with the puck only to be halted by the extended knee of Denis Potvin. (March 28, 1986. I was seated in row six at the blueline near the play when it happened. Still remember it all too tragically well.) Gus broke his leg. An exceptionally promising Capitals’ campaign — delivering the team’s first-ever 50-win season — came to screeching halt.