By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Everywhere Brooks Laich went in the Washington Capitals' practice facility yesterday he received good-natured ribbing for choosing not to participate in the optional practice.
But if anyone deserved a day off, it was Laich, who has accumulated his share of bumps and bruises while scoring 10 goals over the past 12 games. That offensive outburst has put an exclamation point on the 24-year-old's breakout season and helped the Capitals remain in the mix for a playoff berth.
While there are several reasons for Laich's surge, the biggest has been his newfound willingness to cruise high-traffic areas, crash the net, hunt down loose pucks and rebounds, and whack them in.
Both of Laich's goals in Friday's 4-1 victory over Atlanta fit that description. In the first period, the 6-feet-2, 205-pound center muscled his way to the top of the crease, leaving him in perfect position to fire a deflected pass over Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen. Then, early in the second, Laich raced to the net, fought off defenseman Tobias Enstrom and poked in a loose puck.
"If you want money, go to the bank," Laich said after the game. "If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net."
Neither was pretty. But style points are the least of Laich's concerns as Washington's battle for a playoff spot resumes today against Boston, which snapped a three-game losing streak with a 3-2 overtime win over Philadelphia yesterday. The Bruins were without all-star defenseman Zdeno Chara (upper-body injury) in that game and are likely to be without him again today.
The Capitals, meantime, have won two in a row and enter the game four points behind Philadelphia for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and five points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division lead with 10 games remaining.
Part of the reason the Capitals have managed to hang around has been Laich, who has 19 goals this season, not to mention three two-goal games since Feb. 26. His goal total is four more than he had coming into the season and has moved him up to third on the Capitals behind Alex Ovechkin's NHL-best 57 and Alexander Semin's 21.
The Capitals have lacked a potent presence in front of the net since right wing Chris Clark suffered a groin injury that has sidelined him for all but one game since Nov. 28. But that role is being filled nicely by Laich, whose crease-crashing prowess has earned him significantly more playing time on the power play. In fact, Laich has scored six goals with the man advantage in the past dozen contests.
"It's all about going to the net, going to the high-traffic areas," Laich said. "One thing I watched really closely last year was Clarkie. Clarkie's goals weren't always highlight-reel goals. But if you score 30 times, you're going to get noticed. With him out of the lineup, we didn't really have anyone to do that."
Coach Bruce Boudreau agreed, adding: "He found that by going to the net, he's having success. It's not lucky when one goes in off your leg."
There's a price to be paid, though. Namely cross checks to the back from defenseman, sticks to the back of the calf from goaltenders.
"If you get hacked or whacked and the puck goes in, you don't feel it," Laich said. "The reward is great. Maybe after the game you feel it. But you don't care because you scored, you contributed."
Laich also said he's benefited from gaining experience, specifically learning to "play fast but not in a hurry," meaning he's playing under more control. He also cited a significant boost in his confidence as a result of scoring more often.
Something else that could receive a significant boost soon is his salary. A restricted free agent in July, Laich could earn a contract similar to three-year, $3 million deal former Capitals winger Matt Pettinger signed in 2006.
"I thought I could take the next step and contribute more," Laich said. "I was an offensive player in juniors and in the minors. And I thought I could do it here. It just hadn't happened to come around. But I feel like I'm getting started now. I believe I can score at this level and I still think I have more to give."