Matt Hendricks is one of the few bright spots in Caps home opener

Washington forward Matt Hendricks kept his right fist coiled, his knuckles still swollen and bloodied minutes after the Capitals dropped their first home opener in more than a decade Tuesday night at Verizon Center.

It was a productive evening for the grinding winger, who scored the first goal of the game, got bumped up to the top line along with center Nicklas Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin as the night wore on, and emerged on top in two fights. But that mattered little with many of his teammates looking lost and sluggish on the ice in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg.


Matt Hendricks picks a fight at the end of the second period to light a fire under his teammates. (The Washington Post)

“It doesn’t mean anything to me,” a stoic Hendricks said. “I’m a team guy. I’m a fourth-line guy.”

For one game, though, he was also Washington’s best player, showing off the sort of energy Coach Adam Oates is hoping the rest of his new team can discover in the coming days.

He scored his first goal of the season ten minutes into the first period thanks to a beautiful display of tic-tac-toe passing from Backstrom and Ovechkin that resulted in Hendricks re-directing the puck past Winnipeg netminder Ondrej Pacelec. It gave Washington an early 1-0 lead, capping off the lone sequence during Tuesday night’s game in which the Capitals controlled play and looked in sync playing Oates’s new system.

From that point on, Oates began using Hendricks with Backstrom and Ovechkin more often. Forward Marcus Johansson, who had been skating with Washington’s top line, saw just 50 seconds of ice time in the third period. Oates said after the game he “didn’t think [Johansson] was skating. I was looking for a spark.”

“Obviously when [Hendricks] scored, I thought it was a big goal and it was gonna really get us going, and the penalties derailed us,” Oates added. “But that’s the type of guy he is. That’s what I heard about him and he showed it again tonight. He’s willing to win at all costs.”

That also meant returning to his more familiar role of team enforcer to close the second period, after watching Washington allow 20 shots on net in the period. Before the two teams left the bench for the second intermission, and right after Winnipeg’s Jim Slater scored to put the Jets up 3-1, Hendricks received the loudest cheers of the night from the Verizon Center crowd by walloping Slater in a fight.

With the game out of reach late in the third period, he then engaged in a tussle with Winnipeg wing Chris Thorburn that ended in a stalemate.

“I want to get the crowd into it. I want to give them something, some form of energy, get the guys on the bench going,” Hendricks said. “That’s the reason it’s in hockey games.”

Of course, it was to no avail. Hendricks wouldn’t go as far as calling his team’s effort lackluster, but there was no hiding his concern now that the Capitals are 0-2 for the first time since the 1996-97 season. Though Washington has only been learning Oates’s new system for a little more than a week now, he doesn’t believe that can be an excuse going forward.

He certainly didn’t use it as one Tuesday.

“We don’t want to lose any points to division rivals, so it’s back to the drawing board and we need to figure out these wrinkles right now,” Hendricks said.

“I think we’re not making the right decisions right now. I think we might be holding onto the puck too long in some instances and not long enough in other instances. I think we’re putting pucks in areas where we’re allowing them to have the upper hand.”

Mark Giannotto covers high school sports for The Washington Post.

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Katie Carrera · January 23, 2013