In the second period in Ottawa on Thursday as Jack Hillen teed up a shot from the point, Martin Erat skated into the left circle and knew just from the previous positions of his linemates that if he could only settle the puck he could potentially set up a scoring chance in front.
Erat swatted the puck out of midair, and as it hit the ice and hopped back up, chopped at it again to send it over to Mike Ribiero near the right post for the Capitals’ only goal of the contest.
“We were trying to get to the net and I saw Mike, he’s coming from the corner and I just think he’s going to be on the back post because he was coming from that angle,” Erat said of the assist. “I just tried to get it on the net and it worked.”
The play was an example of what has made Erat a consistent offensive presence throughout his career. The 31-year-old winger isn’t a power forward or a shooter who will pick a corner on a goaltender, but his smarts and ability to anticipate the play allow him to take advantage of all types of opportunities.
That can mean anything from sending a choppy pass in front of the net because he instinctively knew where Ribeiro would be or jumping in front of the net for a last-minute tip, like he did against Toronto on April 16 for his first goal as a Capital.
“He’s a very smart player. He knows when to jump through, he knows when to create offense, when to hold back and make sure that he’s more defensively responsible,” Troy Brouwer said. “It comes from the system he was playing in Nashville for so many years — very defensive-minded, think that way first and work on your offense after. I think he likes our system. I think he likes the ability to jump up in the play, make sure that he’s creating lots of offense and still being very strong defensively.”
After suffering a knee injury in just his second game after being acquired at the trade deadline, Erat has played three straight games with Washington and is starting to find his footing in a new system and with a new team.
The transition is an ongoing process as he gets a handle of the additional freedom to focus on offense and works to develop chemistry with Brouwer and Ribeiro on the Capitals’ second line.
“I’m just trying to read and react from them. The first couple games I was doing too much focusing on what I’m supposed to be doing [in the system] instead of just playing hockey,” said Erat, who said the system is coming a little more naturally now. “Right now I’m getting it in my head, getting the system and it feels better.”
There are still times where the three linemates aren’t quite on the same page, though, and it can be especially apparent in the neutral zone during zone entries and exits. But they’re making progress.
“There’s a few cues on the ice, a few plays where maybe you’re expecting something else,” Brouwer said. “We’re still feeling each other out and making sure that we’re always within reach of each other for outlets and passes and support. It’s coming though, it’s good.”