By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
It's something Eric Fehr has experienced each time he's taken the next step in his career. Now it's happening for him in the NHL.
Holes in the defense appear wider. The net looks larger. The game's pace seems slower. And, of course, the puck goes in the net with greater frequency.
"When you first get up here, it seems like you're always in a rush, that guys are always on you, that you don't have time," Fehr said yesterday. "I definitely feel like things are slowing down."
Fehr has scored in four consecutive games and has six goals and three assists in his past eight to boost his season totals to nine goals and 18 points. The 23-year-old right wing entered the season with three goals in 48 games spread over parts of three NHL seasons. He hopes to extend his streak tonight as the Capitals open a season-long five-game homestand against the reeling Montreal Canadiens, who have lost 10 of their past 13 games overall and eight of nine on the road.
Fehr sat out 18 of the Capitals' first 49 games as a healthy scratch, and three more with a shoulder injury. But a vacancy opened up eight games ago when Chris Clark was lost for the season with a wrist injury. Fehr went into the lineup the next game and appears determined not to relinquish his spot.
"Eric is playing as well as he's ever played at this level," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's like any other sport. If you're a baseball player, the pitches seem slower, the net looks like a soccer net and the holes you're going through look huge [although] they're not necessarily that big. It's a good feeling. If that's the way he's feeling, we would like it to continue."
Boudreau has seen Fehr make the jump once before. After back-to-back 50-goal seasons in juniors, Fehr became a consistent goal scorer in the American Hockey League for Boudreau's Hershey Bears. But his leap to the NHL was delayed by nearly an entire season because of a back injury, a setback in his development he's only now starting to overcome.
"It was frustrating to see all the guys around me from the [first round of the 2003] draft succeeding while I was on the shelf," Fehr said. "When I was injured, I was watching those guys sign three-year, five-year, huge deals and play great. But now that I'm healthy, I think I can be right in the mix with guys like Ryan Getzlaf [of Anaheim] and [Philadelphia's] Jeff Carter and Mike Richards."
Three games ago, Fehr's increased production earned him a promotion to the second line with Sergei Fedorov and Tomas Fleischmann. The trio quickly jelled, combining on four goals, three off Fehr's stick.
"It's a pleasant surprise, what they've done," Boudreau said of the line. "So I would like to get some continuity with that line. We've changed lines around through necessity through the course of the year [but] we would like to in the last 25 games get something together. It's been a good fit."
Fehr's physical gifts are obvious. He's 6 feet 4, 210 pounds and uses that size to muscle his way into high-traffic areas. He also has decent speed for a player of his size, but lacks the agility of an elite skater. But what sets Fehr apart are his hockey acumen and stick-handling ability. In addition to possessing one of the best wrist shots on the team, he is adept at using his long reach to break up passes and strip pucks from opposing players, skills he said he learned while playing defense as a youngster. Fehr ranks third on the team in takeaways per game (.83).
"It's hockey sense," Fehr said. "I like to read the play. My long stick gives me the opportunity to steal the puck and get in the way and disrupt the play for the other team."
Fleischmann said he understands how Fehr is feeling these days, having broken through himself recently.
"You just feel a little faster than before," Fleischmann said. "You see the game a little bit slower. And when you want to shoot on the net, you feel like you have more time to pick the corner. That's what happens. It's the change you have to make to go from the AHL to the NHL."
Capitals Notes: Rookies Karl Alzner and Jay Beagle were sent to Hershey yesterday. Alzner's demotion leaves the team with seven healthy defensemen, but the move could be temporary. "He wasn't playing," against Montreal, Boudreau said. But "he could be back for Friday" against Colorado. . . .
Viktor Kozlov is expected to miss his fifth consecutive game with a groin muscle pull. Goaltender Brent Johnson said the surgery on his hip last week revealed extensive damage, but he still hopes to return in the playoffs.