Caps' Clark Excels in a Tough Spot

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

Chris Clark's job is to bring a measure of toughness to the Washington Capitals' scoring line. It's not a particularly glamorous gig, but it has a great benefits package: The rugged right wing spends each game playing alongside one of the NHL's most dynamic players.

"It's unbelievable playing with him," Clark said, referring to rookie left wing Alex Ovechkin. "His mistakes end up on my stick. His great plays end up on my stick."

The latter was the case on Saturday at Verizon Center, where Clark recorded his first career hat trick -- thanks to a pair of perfectly placed passes from Ovechkin -- in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers.

"Last game, that was Clarkie's game," said Ovechkin, who has assisted on three of Clark's last six goals. "I'm very happy for him."

The Russian rookie nearly set up another for Clark in the second period after threading a long pass through traffic. Clark controlled the puck, skated in alone but fired it into Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo.

"You have to always be ready when you're out there playing with a player like that because you never know what's going to happen," Clark said. "To have this opportunity to play with him for these three months has been very special."

Clark's once-in-a-lifetime break came in January.

Seeking a winger who blended grit and some offensive polish to play on the right of Dainius Zubrus and Ovechkin, Coach Glen Hanlon put Clark there on a try-out basis. He hasn't left.

"We wanted some battling along the boards, and certainly some protection," Hanlon said. "Clarkie keeps a lot of people honest. If something goes awry, he's right there."

But, as he proved against the Panthers, he also knows what to do when the puck is on his stick. Clark's milestone performance bumped his career-best season output to 18 goals and 16 assists. (His previous career best for goals was 10, which he achieved three times as a member of the Calgary Flames.)

"Clark's second goal [against the Panthers] was a great goal," Hanlon said. "That backhander off the post was a pretty good play. You can't just tie up a spot [on the first line] with someone who doesn't have the ability to score. You can't just have a two-man line with tough guy."

Clark now finds himself on the verge of scoring 20 goals, a plateau he could well reach considering the Capitals have 16 games remaining.

"I've had 10 goals for 10 years in a row, my next one was to try to get to 15," Clark said. "I want to get more points each year."

Clark and his teammates host the Montreal Canadiens tonight before departing tomorrow for a brutal stretch that will send them on the road for seven in a row and 12 of their final 15 games.

When the Capitals return, Clark will have just closed on a new home, near the city where he and his family will spend the next two seasons.

Clark was rewarded for his breakout season last month with a two-year, $2.1 million contract extension.

"It's great to get that done with, to know we're settled," Clark said. "It's a huge load off my mind. I can concentrate on just hockey. My family is loving it. My kids get their own rooms. There's no more renting. We're all pretty excited."

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