As part of a team with gifted stick-handlers and skaters to spare, Mike Knuble has forged a lengthy NHL career from grit rather than grace. His allegiance is to the unsightly parts of the game, and teammates most often will find Knuble in a scrum in front of the goal rather than celebrating a puck he directed into it.
That's what made Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau's decision to send the right wing onto the ice against Pittsburgh for the most important shot of the game all the more peculiar. A gut feeling is what Boudreau called it.
"And it's a big gut," he added.
The hunch resulted in Knuble's second goal of the game that secured a 4-3 shootout victory against the reigning Stanley Cup champions before a frenzied sellout crowd at Verizon Center.
On his way to the goal, Knuble, who entered 0 for 4 in shootout attempts, used a head-fake to distract Marc-Andre Fleury for an instant and then sent the winning shot over the goalie's left shoulder. That triggered a wild celebration against the Capitals' most bitter rival and the team that knocked Washington out of the playoffs in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals.
"I don't know what it was, man," Knuble said in jest when asked about his shimmy that drew Fleury off his mark in the fourth round of the shootout. "I don't like Bruce putting me in that situation. I didn't have a shift in the overtime, and then he's tapping me on the shoulder."
Self-deprecation aside, Knuble has been perhaps the Capitals' most valuable addition in the offseason and even now following several other new players joining the team. The veteran of 13 NHL seasons has 20 goals in his past 34 games, including collecting another in the second period against the Penguins, and has the most goals among players 34 or older.
Knuble has 26 goals this season and needs nine more to set a single-season high for his career. He has scored at least 24 goals in each of his past seven seasons and twice has eclipsed 30 goals.
"Mike Knuble, he's always there for us," said winger Eric Fehr, who scored his 21st goal of the season at 7 minutes 32 seconds of the third period to put Washington ahead, 3-2. "He's a workhorse. He stands in front of the net, and he seems to be banging in a goal every game, so I mean he's one of the key players to this team, and hopefully he can continue to do that."
Knuble's goal in the second period typified his resolve in situations where other players with lesser fortitude may have yielded.
After linemate Nicklas Backstrom delivered a blistering shot at Fleury, the puck shot high into the air, and players began to converge in front of the crease. Knuble skated with purpose toward the net, brushing aside a defender impeding his path, and planted himself squarely in Fleury's sights.
As soon as the puck dropped to the ice, Knuble batted it toward the net, and it caromed off the post before dribbling in for a goal.
"He's a guy that's very level-headed that you can bounce things off of," Boudreau said of Knuble, "and he usually makes good sense of a lot of the stuff."
Knuble's reassuring sway over his teammates kept them unruffled even when the calls were not in their favor. The Capitals had one power-play opportunity compared to five for the Penguins, and some Washington players grumbled over the officiating after the game.
Then, when Boudreau was asked if he thought the officiating might have been unbalanced, he politely declined to comment in detail.
But the Capitals stood their ground in four of those man-down situations, and that deportment in the face of officiating discrepancies played a significant role in allowing their penalty kill to flourish.
"He brings a lot. Our team was getting a little bit fired up from some of the calls and non-calls, and Knubes is just on the bench trying to control us and telling us to settle down," Fehr said. "He's been through it all, and he just wants to help us out with that."