ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jay Beagle was in the middle of an interview at Honda Center when Alex Ovechkin walked up and urged that he not be kept too long. “Careful, he’s my center,” the Capitals’ star winger said in a nod to Coach Adam Oates’s latest line combinations, which feature an odd-couple pairing in Ovechkin skating alongside the undrafted center who has made a niche for himself as a defensive forward.
“It’s obviously what every player wants. I want to take this opportunity and I want to run with it,” Beagle said. “You want to do the best you can not only for yourself , but for your team. We’re making a playoff push every point is so important, everyone is important.”
With both Brooks Laich and Mikhail Grabovski out of the lineup, with a groin injury and sprained left ankle respectively, Oates has tinkered with the top six frequently not only between games but as they progress. He’s searching for combinations that offer balance while perhaps throwing off opponents by splitting up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
In several recent contests, one of the frequent units has featured Ovechkin with Beagle and Marcus Johansson as left wing. Beagle’s ability to push his more prominent teammates directly up ice is one of the reasons why Oates has liked putting the 28-year-old Calgary native in that spot. Given the lack of depth among two-way players with Laich and Grabovski sidelined, there’s bound to be some experimentation as well.
“It frees up both Ovi and Backy a little bit in terms of matchup,” Oates said, citing when Toronto Coach Randy Carlyle responded to the split by taking Phil Kessel off the Maple Leafs’ top line. Beagle’s “skating and his power, his relentlessness at 200 feet drives them down the ice and that’s good for them sometimes. You’ve got to get away from the cute hockey sometimes and [they] need reminders that sometimes you’ve also got to play this way.”
Beagle earned a consistent spot on Washington’s roster during the 2011-12 season, particularly once Dale Hunter took over as coach and had him serve as center on the team’s shut-down line against opponent’s top units. As much as Beagle considers himself a defensive forward, though, Oates has asked him to be more well-rounded player capable of holding his own in the offensive zone as well.
He was scratched for 18 consecutive games this season from Oct. 19 to Nov. 27 but has played in every game since and Beagle believes he’s growing more comfortable with not only working to protect the puck down low but identifying scoring chances as well.
“I’m always thinking about being on the defensive side of the puck and…it’s a fine line. It’s a balancing act of trying to be offensive but there’s also a time and a place for that,” Beagle said. “I like to grind the puck, I like to keep the puck, cycle the puck it’s just that extra of taking it to the net and not being afraid to make some plays in certain opportunities at certain times.”
While he’s played with Ovechkin for a portion of games over the past few weeks, Beagle hasn’t started a contest skating with the reigning Hart Trophy winner. The transition has been smooth so far, Beagle says, and Ovechkin isn’t worried about the unorthodox combination working either.
“He’s going to help us out. Everybody knows how he can play in the defensive zone and in offensive zone we going to tell him what to do and we’re going to be fine,” Ovechkin said. “It’s good for him. He’s going to play more minutes he’s going to be in a different position, it’s a good challenge for him and a good opportunity for him to take this. He’s probably most hard working guy on the team – in the league from what I’ve seen. He’s going to be all right I think.”