Undersized Keith Aucoin Gets His Big Chance With the Capitals

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

When Keith Aucoin saw Alex Ovechkin glance his way, one thought crossed his mind: Don't blow it.

"I saw Alex with the puck and I got a little nervous," Aucoin said. "That was my first time getting a pass from him, so I had to get him on my good side."

Aucoin made no mistake when the reigning most valuable player's cross-crease pass arrived, burying it to even the score at 2 in the Washington Capitals' 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Sunday. Aucoin later helped set up the game-winning goal, too.

With four points in four games on his current stint in Washington, Aucoin, who was recalled from the minor league Hershey Bears on March 27, has helped provide secondary scoring, injected energy into a lineup that was in need of a boost and given Coach Bruce Boudreau another option to mull over as he prepares to set his lineup for the playoffs, which begin next week.

"With the way I'm playing, hopefully I've shown that I can play every day at this level," said Aucoin, who was leading the American Hockey League in scoring with 94 points when he was called up. "Hopefully the chances are good that I'm going to be here."

Hope is what Aucoin is clinging to at the moment. All that's been communicated to him, he said, is that he'll accompany the Capitals to Atlanta for the start of their three-game, regular season-ending trip tonight. Such is the life of a minor leaguer, who at 30 years old and generously listed at 5 feet 8 and 165 pounds, is still looking to catch on full time in the NHL after stops at Division III Norwich (Vt.) University, the United Hockey League, ECHL, Central Hockey League and AHL.

"He brings that energy every night," Capitals forward Eric Fehr said of Aucoin. "He works really hard. For how small he is, he really battles and he wins those battles. It fires me up when I see him out there out-muscling big guys, hitting guys. It gets the bench going."

Energy wasn't all Aucoin contributed against the Thrashers. After scoring his second goal in three games, he also made the play that changed the complexion of the game. Aucoin, who uses a stick that's longer than the ones used by most 6-footers, reached in and plucked the puck from Thrashers all-star Ilya Kovalchuk. Two passes later, Alexander Semin scored what turned out to be the decisive goal.

"Yeah, guys joke about how my stick is as long as Tom Poti's and bigger than Ovie's," Aucoin said. "When I have my skates on, it goes to about the middle of my forehead. It helps me get the puck away from big guys. Other guys are 6 feet or 6-2. My stick makes me 6 feet tall."

While the longer stick helps him compensate, Aucoin's size has always held him back. He went undrafted and was not recruited by Division I colleges. He only wound up at Norwich after his high school coach used his connections at the university where he had played. But then Aucoin's game blossomed at Norwich, and he was named the Division III player of the year as a senior. He also earned a business degree.

"It's been a long road," Aucoin said. "There were times when my career wasn't going anywhere. But in the lockout year in the AHL, I had a career year, and that's when I realized I could play in the NHL."

Aucoin was referring to the 2004-05 season with the AHL's Providence Bruins, where he notched 21 goals and 45 assists in 72 games. That breakout performance earned him a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Aucoin spent the next three seasons in Carolina's system, appearing in 53 games, including a career-high 38 last season. But when the Hurricanes did not offer him a contract in July, the Capitals signed him to a two-year deal.

"I'm cognizant of his past," said Boudreau, who, like Aucoin, was a smallish player who bounced around the minors. "I want to see those guys do well. I know what happened to me. And I don't want to be the coach that does that to someone else. I want to give him a chance and see what he does."

Aucoin's contract this season stipulates both a minor league and an NHL salary. But next year, he'll earn $500,000 regardless of whether he's playing in Washington or Hershey, Pa.

"You don't commit to a one-way unless you think the guy can play in the league and can give you a number of games," General Manager George McPhee said. "We still see upside there and we think he can play. He's been terrific in Hershey and he's been a good call-up for us. Next year, we hope he sticks."

Capitals Note: Rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov is expected to start tonight.

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