Early in the first overtime of Game 3, New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh began to carry the puck up the boards deep in his own zone. Before he could get more than a few feet from the goal line, though, Matt Hendricks drove his shoulder into the Rangers blueliner and sent him flying to the ice.
“That was good and clean. That’s what hockey’s all about,” Coach Dale Hunter said Friday.
It was the hit of the night but just one of many for Hendricks, who commanded attention each time he was on the ice that evening. He finished with a game-high 11 hits and six shots to continue what has been a strong postseason for the gritty everyman, who has become a key part of the Capitals’ lineup as a part of their shutdown unit.
“That was the hardest game I think I’ve played, throughout my career. It was intense the entire time,” said Hendricks, who expanded upon how he managed to keep bringing a physical presence in the lengthy triple-overtime.
“I think it’s just the mental side of it. You’ve got to stay focused but you’ve got to take those opportunities to finish your checks,” Hendricks said. “Sometimes it’s not the thing you want to do, you’d rather try to fish for the puck or make an easy play, but this is the time of year where all hits count whether they’re big or not. You’ve got to take the body on everybody and I think it’s just a mindset.”
His attitude is one that is appreciated by each of his teammates and it’s stemmed from having two previous postseasons that didn’t go the way Hendricks envisioned.
He made his postseason debut with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10, appearing in six games, averaging just 9:52 and finishing with no points as a minus-2. Then last year with Washington he played in each first-round game but found himself sitting as a healthy scratch in two out of the four games against Tampa Bay in the second round. His ice time dropped closer to 9 minutes a night in the 2010-11 postseason and once again he had no points with a minus-2 rating. In 13 playoff games over those two springs, Hendricks had just six shots on goal.
“This is my third playoff in this league and my first two – my one in Denver was okay, it wasn’t great. Last year I wasn’t happy with it at all, the way it went,” Hendricks said. “I thought I played my role right but I wasn’t in the lineup every night and that was very dissatisfying for me.”
By the time the 2012 playoffs began, Hendricks had already earned more ice time and responsibility as a member of the shutdown third line under Hunter. Hendricks knew he couldn’t waste the greater opportunity he would have this spring and set out to make an impact every game, every shift. So far, he’s managed to do just that.
Through 10 games Hendricks is averaging 16:04 a night and has 21 shots on goal, which ranks third on the Capitals behind only Alex Ovechkin (41) and Alexander Semin (23). He’s recorded two points, including a goal in Game 7 against Boston, and been on the ice for only two of the 15 even-strength tallies Washington has allowed in the postseason.
Then there are the hits. Hendricks has 49, which is second among all players in the postseason; he trails New York captain Ryan Callahan (50) by just one.
It’s been a long road for Hendricks, who arrived in Washington in the fall of 2010 on a professional tryout contract and fought his way into a roster spot for the start of the season. What he has brought to the Capitals’ lineup this postseason is important, teammate Brooks Laich said.
“Matt, he’s a guy that’s earned everything,” Laich said. “He’s a very valuable part of our team and the way he plays has become a lot of the identity of our hockey team. It’s an aspect that maybe we didn’t have before — a guy that went out and would run somebody through the wall... He can do so many things and he’s a very, very underrated hockey player.”
— April 2011: For Hendricks, fighting is all in a day’s work
— D.C. Sports Bog: Hendricks shares his five keys to success
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