Capitals vs. Rangers: Mike Knuble, Keith Aucoin and Joel Ward are carrying the team from the fourth line

Graphic

Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

More Caps and NHL coverage

Caps face offseason uncertainty

Caps face offseason uncertainty

The future of Dale Hunter is one of several tough questions facing the team’s decision makers.

Assessing the Capitals’ season

Assessing the Capitals’ season

For all of the steps forward the Capitals took in reinventing themselves as a gritty, hard-working, defensive-oriented team under Dale Hunter’s guidance as coach, the result didn’t change.

Capitals stopped short in Game 7

Capitals stopped short in Game 7

New York scores on its first shot of the night just 1:32 in and never looks back as the Capitals fail to generate enough scoring opportunities and fall one victory shy of their first berth in the conference finals since 1998.

Capitals lose series, gain identity

Capitals lose series, gain identity

OPINION | Though Game 7 was another heart-wrenching defeat for Washington, the Capitals may have finally found what they’ve been looking for: a team identity.

PHOTOS | Capitals’ run ends in the Garden

PHOTOS | Capitals’ run ends in the Garden

New York eliminates the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, 2-1

Poll: How to frame Caps’ season?

Poll: How to frame Caps’ season?

After the 2-1 Game 7 loss to the Rangers in second round, is Washington’s 2011-12 season a failure?

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012

Stanley Cup Playoffs 2012

PHOTOS | Action from the 2012 NHL playoffs.

Talk about efficiency.

“We’ve been playing well,” Knuble said. “First and foremost, we’ve been good defensively. We haven’t been a thorn in our side, a hindrance to the team’s defense. And at times when we haven’t scored, we’ve been able to rag the puck around and make guys play in their own end. We’re not going out there thinking we’re going to score. So it’s a huge bonus when we do.”

In Game 2 at Madison Square Garden, they notched another one of those enormous bonuses.

The play began with Ward picking off a careless defenseman-to-defenseman pass by New York’s Stu Bickel. Ward controlled the puck and raced the other way, flanked by Aucoin and Knuble on a fast-developing three-on-two advantage.

Once in the Rangers’ zone, the three forwards completed a sequence of passes not normally seen from checking-line players. Ward passed to Aucoin, who quickly returned to the puck to Ward at the side of the net. Without hesitation, Ward zipped a pass across to Knuble, who slipped past Rangers’ defenseman Michael Del Zotto and tapped the puck past Henrik Lundqvist.

The goal put the Capitals ahead, 1-0, and halted the momentum New York had been building in the minutes leading up to it.

“You could hear the bench screaming that there were three of us,” Knuble said. “It was a great passing play. Wardo sent a rocket right across the crease, right onto my tape. It was good way to relieve the pressure, because I think they were coming on a bit.”

Ward added: “I saw the D-man had the puck and I saw Knubes start to pressure. I just stepped up there and I had a feeling he was going to throw it across and he did. I just happened to intercept it.”

The Ward-Knuble connection, of course, is the reason the Capitals are still playing. In Game 7 against Boston, Ward backhanded a Knuble rebound past Bruins goalie Tim Thomas in overtime. In Game 5, Ward set up Knuble for a pivotal third-period score.

In fact, it could be argued that the fourth line has been the Capitals’ best in the postseason. And it’s happening to a trio of players who, at different times this season, had plenty of reason to doubt themselves.

Aucoin, 33, spent the first two-thirds of the season playing for the Capitals’ minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa. Ward, 31, was a healthy scratch seven times down the stretch. Knuble, 39, also spent his fair share of games in February and March wondering when he’d return to the lineup.

Coach Dale Hunter discovered the line’s chemistry late in the regular season and used it intermittently in March and April. Hunter then reassembled the unit in Game 4 against Boston when Knuble, a healthy scratch to start to the playoffs, was reinserted into the lineup.

There’s been no looking back.

“They’re easy to play with,” Ward said. “Coiner’s got a good stick and makes plays. Knubes is going to take the puck to the rack, is a big body, is obviously very smart and good along the walls. That complements myself because I want to take pride along the walls, too.”

One thing the entire line can beam about is its strong play defensively. They sport a combined plus-minus rating of plus-7.

“We work well together in the offensive zone and the defensive zone,” Aucoin said. “We’ve had a lot of really good chances and we hadn’t capitalized on them. Tonight we did.”

The only downside to scoring so frequently, Ward joked, is that they can no longer fly under the radar.

“We don’t want the attention,” he said with a chuckle. “We just want to go about our own business, sneak in through the back door and chip in. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

 
Read what others are saying