Ask NHL defensemen the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the words “Alex Ovechkin,” and you’ll get a variety of answers.
Jack Hillen will think two words: “broken jaw.”
The newest addition to the Capitals blue line is fighting for the role of sixth defenseman during this abbreviated training camp. A little more than three years ago, Hillen nearly saw his career ended by a vicious Ovechkin slapshot to his face.
It happened on Jan. 24, 2010 – Hillen’s 24th birthday -- in a game between Hillen and the Islanders and Ovechkin and the Capitals in Uniondale, N.Y.
Ovechkin took a slapshot from about 20 feet away and the puck deflected off a stick and into the face of Hillen. He immediately dropped to his knees, was helped off the ice and rushed to a nearby hospital, where he underwent a three-hour reconstructive surgery.
“I broke the bone that holds your teeth,” Hillen said. “They put five teeth back in there, a couple plates, a couple screws to hold it all together. I was back playing in five weeks.”
For four of those weeks Hillen ate his meals through a straw and lost between 15 and 20 pounds. Three days after he began eating solid foods Hillen was back in the Islanders’ lineup, about two weeks ahead of schedule.
At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Hillen became the smallest member of the Capitals’ blue line when the club signed him to a one-year, one-way $650,000 contract. Hillen played parts of four seasons with the Islanders before spending one year in Nashville last season, recording two goals and four assists in 55 games.
With the Capitals, Hillen is expected to push John Erskine for the role of sixth defenseman alongside Jeff Schultz.
Asked the first thing he notices about Hillen, Caps coach Adam Oates said, “His skating ability, for sure. You can’t get this far in this league without having that ability. He’s not a huge guy, but positionally he’s been very good and his skating is his best attribute.”
Hillen spent the NHL lockout skating in Minnesota with between 20 and 30 skaters, including teammate Matt Hendricks.
“Jack’s got some wheels,” Hendricks said. “And he’s a ;ot stronger than people may think.”
Hillen said he lifted weights four times a week during the lockout and hopes the extra work pays off this season.
“I think guys might be fresher, but whatever freshness we have we’re going to lose with the schedule,” he said. “It’s brutal because we’ll be playing every other day.”
That schedule kicks off Saturday night in when the Capitals visit their Southeast Division rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As for his relationship with the guy who broke his jaw, Hillen said he and Ovechkin are on good terms.
“He didn’t mean to do it,” he said. “That’s hockey.”