By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009
TAMPA, March 18 -- Standing out on a star-laden team that features two former MVPs and the reigning one isn't easy, particularly for a third-line forward. But the Washington Capitals' Brooks Laich has done it by blocking 95-mph slap shots, creating havoc in the crease and killing penalties, tasks that complement headliners such as Alex Ovechkin.
"It's his work ethic and determination," said Coach Bruce Boudreau, who has overseen Laich's development from long-shot prospect to reliable NHL veteran. "But I still don't think we've seen the best of Brooks. I think he's going to be a 25-, 30-goal scorer in this league and become a staple for a while."
Laich's importance was never more evident than in Tuesday's 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers. A versatile player who can line up at all three forward positions and contribute in every situation, the 25-year-old from Saskatchewan was killing off a penalty when he saw the puck end up on the stick of defenseman John Erskine. Without hesitation, Laich bolted through center ice, knocked down Erskine's long pass, raced into the Panthers' zone and netted his third game-winner of the season and sixth short-handed goal of the past three seasons, the most of any Capital in that span.
The goal was Laich's 18th of the season and put him on pace to join Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Chris Clark as the only Capitals since the lockout to record 20 or more tallies in back-to-back seasons. Laich's 41 points entering tonight's game at Tampa Bay are a career high and he ranks fourth on the team among forwards in time on ice, skating 17 minutes 15 seconds per game, up 3:13 from last season, the biggest increase of any Capital.
"I think I can score more consistently," Laich said. "Sometimes I get into too much of a rush. I try too hard. I try to do too much. I talked to Bruce about it the other day and he told me: 'Just read the play and relax. Have fun.' Before, I was trying to score so badly that I was taking myself out of position and I was rushing things instead of relying on instincts. I know I can take my offensive game to another level. But if you look at the top goal-scorers, they never look like they're in a rush. Everything just slows down for them."
Last July, the Capitals rewarded Laich, the only player among the team's top six in scoring who wasn't a first-round pick, with a three-year, $6.1 million extension. The new deal more than doubled Laich's salary after a breakout season in 2007-08, but management didn't have to worry about him growing complacent. Laich not only has the reputation as the team's hardest-working player on the ice and in the gym, he has played in 175 consecutive games, the longest streak on the team. Those attributes, Boudreau said, make Laich a candidate to be a captain some day.
"I try to be consistent," Laich said. "I try to play hard every day. I try to work hard in practice every day. My dad told me he only missed three days of work in 34 years [as a school teacher and principal]. So that's something that I took to heart."
On Tuesday night, Laich also had a hand in the Capitals' second goal against the Panthers. Though he did not register an assist on Viktor Kozlov's third-period tally, Laich went to the net hard and made sure goalie Tomas Vokoun never got a clear view of the puck.
Laich's passion for the game and commitment to winning have made him a crowd favorite in Washington this season. His fan base, however, probably doubled on a single night in Los Angeles last November. The Capitals were attempting to kill off a five-on-three power play when Laich lost his stick. Didn't matter. He went down to block one slap shot from the point with his leg, then used his hand to knock down another point shot moments later in an eventual 5-2 loss.
In addition to deflecting shots, Laich also absorbs some of the media attention from his teammates. After many games and practices, Laich can be found near his locker stall, surrounded by cameras and microphones.
"If I asked you about your family, you would talk about them forever because it's something you love," Laich said. "That's the way I feel about this team. This team is my life, and I love playing here and I'm passionate about playing hockey. So it's easy for me to talk about it."