By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
When Brooks Laich found Matt Bradley on the right wing yesterday afternoon, more than 13 minutes had elapsed in the first period of the Washington Capitals' Eastern Conference semifinal against the Pittsburgh Penguins. To that point, the Penguins had 11 shots, including a goal. The Capitals had managed two shots and looked listless.
Bradley, though, took the third shot, firing from the corner on Penguins goalie Marc-André Fleury. He blocked it easily, but couldn't contain the rebound. So here came David Steckel, the 6-foot-5, 222-pound behemoth charging down the left wing. Steckel muscled the puck past Fleury, the game was tied, and suddenly, the Capitals' doldrums were done.
"I think we didn't play well [in the] first 10 minutes," Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "Only one line played well. It was Steckel line. They scored our goal, and we feel life."
By the end of a 3-2 victory in Game 1, the Capitals got a spark from more places than they normally expect. Not only did the line of Steckel, Laich and Bradley produce a game-changing opening goal, but the stick of Tomas Fleischmann -- creator of many chances, finisher of few -- knocked home the game-winner early in the third period. Yes, Ovechkin scored as well, but the unexpected goals from unlikely sources carried the Capitals to the early lead in the series.
"You're going to need secondary scoring anytime you're in the playoffs," said Steckel, who scored his first goal of this year's playoffs. "It's our time to step up and help the guys out."
The helping, though, has now been going on for three games. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau moved Laich to play with grinders Bradley and Steckel for the sixth game of the opening-round series against the New York Rangers, a game in which the Capitals faced elimination. Bradley, who had five goals all season, came up with two that night, and Boudreau has stuck with them since.
Laich, who played both on the power play and with more skilled players such as Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov in the past, said he understood the move. Boudreau, Laich pointed out, won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach a year ago, and therefore, "You don't second-guess something that he says."
So Laich didn't. Though he scored 23 goals in the regular season, he said, "We aren't the three most skilled guys." And he said the group knows precisely what their objective is each game.
"We've got three guys that are all 6-2, 6-3, over 200 pounds that can forecheck, wear down their defensemen," Laich said. "By the second or third period, when we get the puck in their zone, they're thinking, 'Oh, I have to go back and get it again. I'm going to get drilled again.'
"And then when they get on the ice against an Ovie or a Semin, maybe they don't have as much effort to play defense. We understand our role."
It is not, however, the same role Fleischmann is supposed to play. The Capitals consider the 24-year-old Czech to be a skilled offensive player, one who might some day become a 30-goal scorer. Yet in two full NHL seasons, he has yet to consistently convert opportunities. He scored on a tip-in in the first game of the Rangers series, then all but vanished. His season was marked by 19 goals, but seemingly more missed chances.
"I forget about them," Fleischmann said, "about two days later."
Steckel, though, played with Fleischmann in the minors for two seasons. He has seen this phenomenon before -- the net open for a split second, the puck on Fleischmann's stick -- but no goal.
"He gets frustrated," Steckel said. "He really puts a lot of pressure on himself. For some reason, they just don't go in."
Yesterday, when the Capitals needed it, the puck went in. Semin began the decisive play from just inside the blueline and found center Nicklas Backstrom in transition. The Swede then looked to Fleischmann in front of the net, where he hit what he described as a "chip shot" past Fleury. More than 18 minutes remained, but it held up as the game-winner, and for a day, at least, the Capitals' offense was spread out .
"If we can get goal-scoring from three, four lines, rather than just maybe one or two," Laich said, "if we can score by committee, then hopefully we'll be a lot more dangerous."