Caps Center Keith Aucoin Cashes in on Opportunity

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Although Keith Aucoin played only 10 minutes in his Washington Capitals' debut on Thursday, the smallest player on the ice left a big impression on Coach Bruce Boudreau in the 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

"I thought Keith played very well," Boudreau said yesterday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "I thought he brought energy, life and he created some scoring chances."

For those reasons -- and because of the team's injury problems -- Aucoin is expected to remain in the lineup tonight as the Capitals attempt to snap a four-game road losing streak in Toronto, and tomorrow at Carolina, his former team.

Aucoin signed a two-year free agent contract with the Capitals in July and has been the best player this season on Washington's top farm team, the American Hockey League-leading Hershey Bears. But he had started to wonder when his next opportunity in the big league would arrive after watching Hershey teammates get promoted.

"It was frustrating, but as a player you have to understand that they were calling up wingers, not centers," said Aucoin, who has nine goals and 27 assists in 24 games with the Bears. "I've been around, so I know how it goes."

His cellphone finally rang on Wednesday afternoon, one day after the Capitals suffered an ugly 5-3 loss to the Florida Panthers. With Sergei Fedorov hurt and Michael Nylander struggling, Boudreau wanted a playmaking center to skate on the second line with Tomas Fleischmann and Viktor Kozlov, and Aucoin fit the description.

Against the Islanders, Aucoin was credited with three takeaways, a blocked shot and one shot on a goal, which came on a breakaway in the second period. But the breakaway and the frenetic pace at which he plays weren't the only reasons the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Aucoin stood out.

"He's crafty, he has great vision and is a great passer," Boudreau said. "As critics we're always looking for reasons why he can't do it. He comes from a Division III school," Norwich University in Vermont. "He's 5 foot 8. He's not big. He's not overly fast. But the bottom line is he competes, he cares and he's good."

Added Aucoin, who has a framed game-action photograph of him next to 6-foot-9 Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara: "The biggest thing is don't stop moving your feet because you don't want those big guys to get a hold of you. But mostly it's determination."

That determination is obvious after listening to him recount his circuitous path to Washington. The Waltham, Mass., native didn't receive any offers from Division I universities, so he attended Norwich, where he guided the Cadets to a national title in 2000 and was the player of the year in 2001. After four seasons at Norwich, he started his professional career in 2001 and since has played in 485 minor leagues games in four leagues.

Aucoin made his NHL debut in 2005-06 with the Hurricanes, skating in seven games. He appeared in eight the following season and had a breakthrough a year ago, suiting up for 38 contests, notching five goals and eight assists for Carolina. When the Hurricanes did not offer him a contract, the Capitals signed him to bolster the lineup in Hershey and add depth to the organization.

The likelihood of Aucoin earning a full-time job in Washington would appear to be slim, especially when the injured players return. But that's not how he's looking at the situation. After all, he said, when has he allowed long odds to deter him?

"When you're here, you want to show that you can be a full-time player," Aucoin said. "I know they have a lot of depth. But I know I can play at this level after what I did last year. I just want to keep playing the way I've been playing in Hershey, and everything will take care of itself."

Capitals Notes: Mike Green (bruised shoulder), Fedorov (sprained ankle), Tom Poti (groin muscle pull), Alexander Semin (upper torso strain) and John Erskine (concussion) are not expected to play tonight. . . . Alex Ovechkin, who ranked third in the league in scoring behind Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby entering last night's games, has 11 goals in 12 career games against the Maple Leafs.

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