During their shared stints with the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals, coach Barry Trotz has held defenseman Jack Hillen out of the lineup for extended periods of time.
Trotz, a staunch proponent of open communication, would apologize to Hillen for that, feeling bad for not having a regular role for him to fill. Hillen wouldn't accept it.
"Coach, don't worry about me," Trotz recalled Hillen telling him. "I'm OK. I'll be ready. When you decide to put me in, I'll be ready to go."
"That's just a great attitude to have," Trotz said Monday. "And I think that's why he seamlessly can go in and do so well."
Hillen's three seasons in Washington have been defined by lengthy absences. Significant injuries -- broken ribs, a fractured right tibial plateau, a concussion -- limited him to 36 of a possible 130 regular-season games in 2012-13 and 2013-14. This season, it was the Capitals' fortified defensive depth. Hillen replaced an injured Mike Green in the season opener Oct. 9, but did not play again until Nov. 26, a span of 19 games.
Trotz has frequently lauded Hillen's professionalism, the 28-year-old not harboring a downtrodden "Why me?" or vindictive "I'll show you" attitude. It is for that reason that Trotz and Hillen's teammates are not surprised that he has returned to active duty so effortlessly.
With defenseman Nate Schmidt struggling, Hillen has appeared in six of the Capitals' past seven games and been their most productive defenseman at even strength in the past three with an assist in each. His 57.9 Corsi percentage, a measurement of on-ice shot attempt differential, also leads Washington defensemen over the past three games.
Working closely with assistant coach Todd Reirden to remain game-ready, Hillen has also depended on his veteran status to keep him prepared.
"I'd say 99.9 percent of it is relying on experience," Hillen said. "Knowing that I've sat out stretches before, whether it be injury or healthy scratch, and come in and played well, that was pretty much the only thing I was banking on when I wasn't playing is that when I get in there, I've done this before.
"Yeah, I knew that first period or that first game was going to be an adjustment period to the speed because you just can't get that speed in practice, but once you get used to the speed, I've watched enough hockey, I've played enough hockey where I know what I'm supposed to do."
Following Washington's 4-3 victory against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, defenseman Brooks Orpik conferred on Hillen the "Honest Abe" top hat and beard, awarded to the player of the game after a win.
"There's a reason why," Green said. "He comes in after not playing for a while and he works so hard off the ice to make sure that he was ready for when his chance was there. He's done great."
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