Joel Ward doesn’t like to make a fuss about himself. Bring up his nine goals — which are the most he has had in three seasons with the Washington Capitals and rank second on the team behind Alex Ovechkin — and with a sheepish grin he’ll quietly acknowledge he has found his scoring touch.
While it may be masked by modesty, Ward’s emergence on the scoresheet illustrates a player thriving in his role and relishing additional responsibilities.
“For me, when you get an opportunity to play, you make the most of it,” said Ward, who has 13 points as part of Washington’s dominant third line and is riding a three-game scoring streak heading into Friday’s game at the Detroit Red Wings. “I didn’t really get a chance to play on the power play or penalty kill so much [early in his tenure with the Capitals]. It’s a whole different ballgame when you’re playing on special teams. You get an opportunity for more minutes, you get more reps in, more chances to make plays, and you feel more confident in areas like in front of the net.”
Back in 2011, Ward recorded seven goals and six assists in 12 postseason games with the Nashville Predators, establishing his reputation as a playoff performer and making him a sought-after free agent that summer.
When the Capitals signed Ward to a four-year, $12 million contract on the first day of free agency, General Manager George McPhee admitted Washington overpaid by roughly 15 percent to land the big, forechecking winger with a strong two-way game.
While it was his postseason play that made Ward, now 32, such a prominent target on the Capitals’ wish list that year, the team believed he could produce consistently year round. But until this year, Ward’s offensive production during the regular season has been inconsistent, with just 14 goals and 38 points in his first two seasons with the Capitals.
“When a player can play as well as he did in the playoffs, in the most difficult time of the year, then you think you’d be able to get even more in the regular season and get even more performance like that out of him. We’re finally getting it from him,” McPhee said. “We haven’t been disappointed in him, but we thought he was capable of doing this a while ago. It looks good. It looks good on him.”
In his first two years with the Capitals, Ward saw limited minutes under both Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter — his 12-minute 26-second average in 2011-12 was the lowest in his six seasons as a full-time NHL player — and he didn’t play on the penalty kill or power play. A lingering groin problem also took a toll, and Ward underwent sports hernia surgery in the summer of 2012.
When Adam Oates took over as coach, he wasted little time before including Ward on the penalty-kill rotation and making him one of the options in the slot on the power play. That time allowed Ward greater opportunity to make an impact, but it also came with expectations.
“I expect him to play now like he does in the playoffs. Every night,” Oates said. “It just happens to be [the regular season], but we need these points, and you’ve got to put yourself in positions.”
Even under Oates last season, offense came in spurts for Ward, who at one point went 16 games without a goal. But Oates’s trust in the form of regular ice time and willingness to work with Ward to improve his game — Ward changed the curve pattern of his stick at his coach’s suggestion — resonated with the Toronto native.
“Oatesy been huge — personally, mentally — in just giving me an opportunity. To put me out there even though I might not execute at all times or mess up, he still has the confidence in me,” Ward said. “I’ve played the game for a long time, but I’m always willing to learn, and he’s always been helpful in that aspect, too. I just try to take as much info as I can, and it seems to be working.”
Ward knows that there’s no guarantee he will continue filling the net at the same pace all year, but he’s determined to stay on this path.
“I just want to keep it going,” he said.
Capitals note: Defenseman Mike Green sat out a second straight practice with a lower-body injury that Oates described as a bruise. Green did make the trip to Detroit with the team, but he is questionable for Friday’s game against the Red Wings.
Washington recalled defenseman Tyson Strachan from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears in case Green can’t play.