Joel Ward will return to the Capitals’ lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers Thursday night at Verizon Center after missing nearly a month with a left knee contusion.
“Yeah I get a chance to play. I’m excited, for sure, that I get to reunite with my buddies. I’m pretty happy about that,” Ward said. “Every day I’ve felt better, I’m just looking to go out there and let the adrenaline take place and just play. But I’ve felt a lot better last the couple of days for sure.”
Ward, 32, missed the final nine games of the regular season after blocking a shot by Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo on April 7. Against the Rangers he will slot into right wing on the fourth line alongside Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle. Aaron Volpatti will be a healthy scratch, along with Wojtek Wolski, Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz.
While Volpatti gives the fourth line a little more of a physical, gritty edge, Ward’s presence brings a little more offensive potential.
“His ability to keep the cycles alive, keep control of the puck in the offensive zone, he’s very good at that,” said Hendricks, who will shift over to left wing after playing at center for the past several weeks. “Having Joel back on the right side is going to give us a little more offense through the lineup.”
In 39 games this season, Ward recorded eight goals and 12 assists and the Capitals are glad that the veteran winger and his postseason experience will be back in the fold.
“He’s been one of our better players all year long, had a great year for us,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We missed him. We’re glad he’s healthy and can play.”
Ward scored series-winning goal in overtime of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins last year and made a name for himself in the 2010-11 Stanley Cup playoffs while still with Nashville when he recorded seven goals and six assists in 12 postseason contests.
“He had a good series last year, a good playoffs last year, a big goal to win the Boston series,” Troy Brouwer said. “When he was in Nashville, he had a lot of timely goals, key goals. So he’s a clutch guy; he’s that guy that pressure and the intensity of playoffs don’t really faze him.”
While Ward’s straightforward style has served him well in the postseason, it was his double-minor for high-sticking late in Game 5 against the Rangers last year that allowed them to tie that game and then go on to win in overtime and proved to be a turning point in that series.
Ward is eager to get back to the postseason, though, and hopes he can make a positive impact once again. The 32-year-old winger can’t pinpoint what exactly about the Stanley Cup playoffs brings out some of his best performances, but he’s hoping it can continue.
“I don’t know. I just have fun with it,” Ward said. “I think some people, yes, it’s a very important game, but you have to kind of stay in that moment, I think. You’ve got to be patient and just believe in your abilities and you’ll get your chance to do something and hopefully you capitalize when you do get those chances.”
Here’s what the Capitals’ lineup should look like for Game 1:
Goal: Holtby, Neuvirth
Scratches: Volpatti, Wolski, Schultz and Poti.