Over the past few weeks, Joel Ward’s struggles were on display as his ice time dipped dramatically. The Capitals winger, a high-priced offseason signing to the tune of a four-year, $12 million deal, went from averaging around 14 to 15 minutes per game to less than 10 minutes for six consecutive games leading up to Tuesday’s contest against the Florida Panthers.
In that crucial meeting against the Panthers, though, the Capitals’ coaching staff needed him to revive his role as a shutdown forward, particularly with Brooks Laich being held in a limited role with a left knee injury. Ward was placed on a line with Matt Hendricks and Jeff Halpern that was responsible for shutting down Florida’s top unit.
The Capitals’ trio held Florida’s line of Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss to a combined seven shots on goal. But it was Ward who turned heads with what was arguably his best game since the coaching change in late November.
“He moved up lines and he answered the bell. I thought it was his best game that I’ve seen here and you know he played hard, took the body, cycled well and created scoring chances,” said Coach Dale Hunter, who was asked why Ward’s ice time had dropped so significantly.
“He wasn’t playing as well as he should be playing,” Hunter said Wednesday. “Last night he played with a lot of desperation that he wants to get more ice time. When people show you, then you give them more.”
Ward’s responsibility in his own zone is one of his strongest assets. He isn’t a regular presence on the scoresheet – as evidenced by the fact that he has just one goal and seven assists in the past 40 games – but he can help Washington control the play and establish offensive zone pressure.
Against the Panthers, Ward did just that. His hitting helped the Capitals’ forechecking and his positioning helped keep Florida’s top line at bay in the defensive zone. His strong outing didn’t go unnoticed by teammates.
“He was nasty on the puck,” Laich said on Tuesday night when asked about Ward’s effort. “When he got the puck he wasn’t giving it up. He would hold on to it drive through one guy, drive through another guy. He finished his checks, he finished them hard, he moved his feet. I told him after the first, ‘Keep going man you’re playing well.’”
Ward finished with 13 minutes and 42 seconds, his most ice time since Jan. 11 against Pittsburgh. He was credited with one shot on goal, four hits and two blocked shots. For Ward, the game was a chance to seize an opportunity and remind his coaches and teammates what he can do.
“I knew I was going to get an opportunity to play a little more and I kind of felt the backing of my coaches and that’s a good feeling,” Ward said. “Any time you go into a game, just knowing that you’re going to get a good opportunity to play you try to make the most of it. I just want to help this team try to get in the playoffs.”
So what helped to make Ward so successful against the Panthers but was lacking from his game in recent weeks? A sense of urgency, according to Washington’s coaches.
Ward’s low ice time was never a reflection of him taking careless risks or making poor decisions, according to assistant coach Dean Evason.
“We didn’t think he was moving his legs,” Evason explained. “Yes, he’s very sound positionally but we thought he could move his legs and get his feet moving a little bit more so he could get in on forechecks -- pushing the envelope to get in.”
Against Florida “you saw his legs were moving all the time he was aggressively trying to get it in on the forechecks and hits,” Evason said. ”It wasn’t as if he was in the wrong position or making mistakes or anything like that previously he just wasn’t playing the game with that sense of urgency, that excitement that can make a guy like him successful.”
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