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On Hockey: Mike Knuble’s resurgence comes at the right time for Capitals

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At times earlier this year, it looked as though the grind of 14 NHL seasons and more than 900 games had finally taken its toll on Washington Capitals winger Mike Knuble.

The vet­eran appeared out of sync some nights and a step too slow on others.

In the past three weeks, however, the 38-year-old has been the Capitals’ most productive player and, once again, ranks among the game’s premier power forwards. After scoring a total of three goals in October and November, Knuble has netted nine goals in 12 games to bring his season total to 24 and propel Washington closer to a second consecutive Eastern Conference regular season title.

“Got to get the old bones going,” Coach Bruce Boudreau cracked when asked about Knuble’s slow start. “It takes a little time. He’ll be the first one to tell you [that] he’s a better second-half player. Some people are, and there’s no explanation for it.”

With the playoffs set to begin next week, Knuble’s age-defying resurgence has come at the perfect time for a Capitals team that is hoping to play deep into the spring. To do that, they’re going to need dazzling tallies from skilled stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. But, just as important, they’re going to need the ugly ones that Knuble specializes in as opponents tighten up defensively.

Knuble’s power-play goal in the Capitals’ 5-2 victory over Florida was a prime example of what the net-crashing winger does when he’s on his game: The 6-foot-3, 223-pound player made a beeline through the offensive zone, splitting the Panthers’ Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov, then redirected a cross-ice pass from Brooks Laich past goalie Scott Clemmensen from the top of the crease.

“That’s how we’re going to score in the playoffs — around the net,” Knuble said. “For me, I’m happy it’s April and not December. Things are coming my way now. If you’re going to be hot, I would rather it be this time of year.”

Knuble couldn’t pinpoint the source of his early struggles, but he scoffed a bit when asked if he had been pacing himself.

“I wasn’t happy about things, the way it was going,” he said. “But, ultimately, I can’t change my game. When you really get in trouble is when you change your game.

“I was probably snakebitten at some points early in the year,” he added. “Now I’m getting to the net, the pucks have been dropping and I’ve been able to get sticks on them. When you’re struggling, you know it’s going to equal out at some point. You just keep doing what’s rewarded you in the past, keep going back to it.”

Indeed, all but two of Knuble’s goals the past dozen games have been scored right around (and sometimes inside) the crease, and they’ve come on rebounds, redirections and point-blank shots. Among all players 38 or older, the only player with more goals than Knuble is Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne, 40, who has 29 tallies.

The stereo in the home dressing room was cranked up after Wednesday’s win. But the excitement in the air was less about trouncing the overmatched Panthers and more about what lies next. After Saturday’s regular season finale in Florida, the Capitals finally will arrive at the moment they’ve anxiously awaited since last spring’s embarrassing first-round loss to Montreal.

“When we lost last year,” Knuble said, “we were all ready to fast forward and start the playoffs again and get right back at it. Our time is coming, and it starts Wednesday or Thursday. We’ve got some different faces in here, but the core group is still here. It’s going to be a good chance to right some wrongs.”

For Knuble, though, there’s an added sense of urgency. He won a Stanley Cup in 1998 but played in only three playoff games for Detroit, which swept the Capitals in the finals. His goal ever since has been to claim the Cup as a regular in the lineup — and he realizes that he’s running out of time. He’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, and given the Capitals’ salary cap situation, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be back.

“That’s why I came here,” he said. “I could have gone to a couple of different places. But I came here because it was a chance to win with a good nucleus. We know what’s out there. We just have to throw the whole thing together. But that’s an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do.”

© The Washington Post Company