ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Washington Capitals’ third line has never been all that concerned about style points. Its ability to win battles along the boards, protect the puck and hunt down rebounds won’t regularly wow onlookers.
Rather, their objective is to wear on opponents each time they’re on the ice by churning away low in the offensive zone and getting on the scoresheet when the opportunity presents itself.
“It’s simple,” Joel Ward said. “We know if we’re not good five-on-five, we’re not going to play. The majority of the game is played five-on-five, and you have to control what you can when you’re out there to establish a good even-strength game. We take pride in being responsible players defensively, and offensively, it seems to be working out so far.”
That would be an understatement. Through 70 games this season, Washington’s third line — a unit defined by veteran wingers Ward, Jason Chimera and their straightforward grinding approach — has been the team’s most reliable at even strength regardless of who the center has been.
Of the two wingers’ combined 34 goals this season, 25 have come five-on-five with Ward scoring 13 and Chimera posting 12. The only Capital with more is the league’s leading goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin, who has 26.
In recent weeks as Washington geared up to make a late playoff push, Eric Fehr has occupied the center spot on the line and at least one member of the trio has been on the ice for 11 of the team’s past 15 five-on-five goals.
“We trust each other a lot,” Fehr said. “We can jump to situations where we know the puck’s going to go because of the similar styles that we play and we’re very comfortable. I think that helps us read plays better and make things happen faster.”
Their steady presence has been invaluable to a team that hasn’t been able to count on even-strength play elsewhere this season.
“They’re big strong guys, they love to go north and get the puck behind [an opponent’s] net,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It makes it very difficult for the other team because that’s tough minutes against guys like that. No one wants to play behind their own net, let alone a team’s centers. You kind of want an easy game if possible and they make it difficult. For 15 minutes a night, we count on them to put it behind their net.”
Ward, 33, has posted career highs in goals (21) and points (41) in this, his seventh NHL season; Chimera, 34, is two points shy of his career high (39) in his 13th NHL season. Fehr, 28, has 11 goals and 25 points, his most since the 2009-10 season.
The chemistry between Ward and Chimera, both in styles of play and wacky senses of humor, has resulted in a successful on-ice partnership and upbeat locker room presence. The bond is so strong, Oates now refers to them as “the twins,” and on the rare occasions he split them up in an attempt to spark other parts of the roster, the experiment rarely lasted more than a period.
“It’s weird; it’s like I’m locked into boots when I don’t play with him,” Chimera said of his connection with Ward. “The familiarity is fun, you know where guys are, you can throw pucks at certain areas and you know someone’s going to be there for sure. It’s a comfort knowing where people are and it makes it easy. It’s uncanny sometimes how we know where each other are.”
That makes for well-executed dump-in plays, breakouts and a smooth cycle because one can put the puck in the corner or up the wall knowing that the other will be at the right place to ensure they maintain possession.
Take Ward’s first-period goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 victory over the Ducks. All three players were involved in working the play around the offensive zone, moving the puck between them until Chimera fired two shots on net. The second resulted in a rebound for Ward on the right side that became a 1-0 lead for the Capitals.
“We try to support each other, basically stay together as close as we can without overcrowding each other in the corners,” Ward said. “When we’ve found success is when we’re around each other and supporting, that way when the puck does get knocked off one of our sticks the other guys are going to be there for each other. We just try to keep it simple as best we can.”