Joel Ward’s straightforward, hard-nosed brand of hockey has always lent itself well to postseason play. He’s tough along the boards, crashes the net and plays a smart game that makes up for what it lacks in flash with timely contributions.
The 32-year-old winger recorded his first goal of the postseason when he fired a one-timer past Henrik Lundqvist from the slot on the power play to pull the Capitals even in the second period of Game 5 on Friday night.
Long before Ward scored, though, he and linemates Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera had been making a consistent impact in the playoffs with that steady, hardworking style.
“It’s been great to have him back. We missed him when he was hurt,” Coach Adam Oates said Friday night of Ward’s impact since he returned from a left knee contusion at the start of the playoffs.
“That line with Perreault and Chimera,” Oates continued, “they’ve really, the last 10 games of the year and so far in the series, they’ve really upgraded their game and really helped us.
The third line of Chimera, Perreault and either Ward or, earlier, Eric Fehr has been the Capitals’ most effective unit through the first five games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. They’ve done everything from creating sustained offensive zone pressure and establishing a hard-hitting forecheck to pitching in on the scoresheet and making smart plays in their own end.
The current trio has combined for three goals and eight assists in the playoffs and they’ve been on the ice for only one even-strength goal against.
“We feel we can make a difference and we’re playing like it,” Chimera said earlier this week. “P knows when to swat the puck and when P’s engaged in the game he’s probably one of the better centermen that I’ve played with. He distributes the puck real well and he’s a good passer. With Wardo or Fehrsie — big bodies out there — we control the puck down there for the main part of the series. We’ve got to keep doing that and keep helping the team out.”
It’s not unusual for a team’s third or fourth line make an impact in the postseason. Given the focus on stopping top six forwards and stars on either side, the other units can exploit the matchups they receive against lesser defensive pairings if they know how to take advantage.
For the Capitals’ third unit, that means allowing each other’s natural talents to complement the other. Chimera’s speed and willingness to dish out heavy checks make him the perfect option to start the forecheck and put the Rangers on their heels. Ward’s ability to win puck battles along the wall allows them to maintain possession. And Perreault’s playmaking ability helps brings the puck out of the corners and creates scoring opportunities.
“We don’t have the top D pair in front of us we mostly get the third or second pairing,” Perreault said. “You look at the playoffs every year there are unsung heroes, guys from the third and fourth line that step up their games. That’s what the playoffs are all about and so far I feel like our line has been doing a good job.”
All three members of the unit are happy to drive the net and it’s paid off consistently against New York, which collapses so well in its own zone. The third line has been able to disrupt the Rangers’ defensive structure by working the play down low and right on top of the crease.
“We’ve got to get more pucks in that crease area and whack away, especially this time of year you’re not going to score too many pretty ones any time we get the opportunity to take pucks to the rack it’s a good thing,” Ward said. “We’ve got to make [Lundqvist] move a little bit in front of the net and create some opportunity and jam in front. Hopefully we can keep doing that, it creates more holes the more pressure we put on.”