The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joel Ward is ‘just a clutch guy’

Washington’s Joel Ward scores the game-winning goal past New York’s Henrik Lundqvist with just under 2 seconds left in the third period of Game 1. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

As a kid, Joel Ward would fantasize about scoring the “big goal,” planning out every last detail about how and when it would happen. He still does that, but instead of dreaming, he calls it “visualizing.” The reality rarely goes as planned.

“The way I think about it usually doesn’t happen,” Ward said. “I kind of get a little unrealistic about the way I visualize things. … I tend to hope a couple of defensemen fall down, I get a breakaway, but my mind is a little at a stretch. I still like to visualize getting those opportunities.”

Envisioning Ward scoring during the postseason is easy. He leads the Capitals with nine points in the playoffs, but the timing of his goals are likely more memorable. He scored the first goal of the Game 7 win against the Islanders. He scored the game-winner just before the horn sounded in Game 1 against the Rangers. His goal midway through the third period of Game 6 got Washington within one goal of the Rangers in the 4-3 loss.

In 2012, it was Ward’s goal in overtime that pushed the Capitals past the Boston Bruins on their home ice in Game 7. And while Ward is aware of the narrative that often follows him this time of year, he doesn’t completely understand it.

“I really just have fun,” Ward said. “I don’t know how to even answer these questions. I really just try to have fun as much as I can. I want to play hard, and I want to score the big goal for the team, like everybody else does.”

His teammates explain his knack for rising to the highest of occasions with his joy of playing in them. While some players might get tense before a winner-take-all playoff game, such as the one the Capitals will play on Wednesday, Ward sat at his stall after practice on Tuesday and talked with reporters longer than any other player, debating the existence of a “clutch gene.”

“He’s just a clutch guy,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He’s got a demeanor about him that’s very relaxed and calm. He’s able to play that way, too, with how he reads and reacts. When maybe guys go a little too fast or think too much, Wardo is in the right spot at the right time.”

Said defenseman Karl Alzner: “That’s what we knew of him coming from Nashville, too. One of the main reasons why you pick up a guy like that is he comes to play when it’s on the line. It’s hard to find guys who can do that as good as he does. He’s a big-game player.”

After the Capitals fell into a 1-0 hole in the first minute of Game 6, Washington Coach Barry Trotz went to his “Plan B,” moving Ward to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s line with winger Jason Chimera while moving Marcus Johansson up to the top line with Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom. The experiment worked, as the Kuznetsov line accounted for all three of the team’s goals, with each member of the trio scoring one.

Trotz kept Ward on the Kuznetsov line in practice on Tuesday with Johansson on the Backstrom line, and he said it was in part because the Kuznetsov line played well together in Game 6, but also that if he were going to make any changes, he wouldn’t show them a day before the game. The trio played less than 13 minutes together at even strength this season, according to puckalytics.com, but Ward and Chimera had been paired together often in previous seasons.

“It’s easy because when you make a switch in games and stuff, you know where he’s going to be at and tendencies like that,” Ward said of Chimera. “I’ve played with him and I sit beside the guy on the plane, so I mean, it’s not hard to figure out that he’s got a lot of speed. I’ve just got to find a way for him to use it.”

The line was among the most boisterous in practice on Tuesday, flashing the same loose look that the Capitals have had for most of this postseason. For Ward especially, it’s what works best, “staying in the moment,” as he called it, even if it’s a big one.

“We play ice hockey for a living,” Ward said. “It is very hard to complain.”

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