As the Washington Capitals trickled onto the ice Friday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, each player was greeted by a warm round of applause from the approximately 100 fans in attendance.
When it was Joel Ward’s turn, those claps gave way to a standing ovation. His teammates, meantime, tapped their sticks on the ice in unison.
The reason of their appreciation was twofold: Ward, of course, scored the series-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in overtime of Game 7; he also was the target of a torrent of racist tweets from a handful of hate-filled fans in the hours afterward.
“For me, it’s pretty simple: I don’t let it bother me at all,” Ward said following practice. “It’s a few people that made a couple of terrible comments. What can you do?”
“I know what I signed up for,” he added. “I’m a black guy playing a predominantly white sport. It just comes with the territory. I would be naive or foolish to believe or think that it doesn’t exist. It’s part of life.”
Ward addressed the matter on a day that was otherwise light and upbeat as the Capitals prepared for their semifinal playoff series against the New York Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Game 1 is Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
If there was one word that summed up Washington’s mood it was confidence — something that hasn’t always been the team’s hallmark this season. After eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions, however, it’s in no short supply these days.
“When I got called up, [the confidence] was building,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “You could see guys were starting to creep out of the doubts and whatnot that they’ve had before. It’s definitely growing. Hopefully it keeps growing. We’re at a good stage right now where we’re a confident group.”
They also were careful to give respect to the Rangers, an opponent they’re meeting in the playoffs for the second straight season and third time in four years. But there’s a twist. The Capitals under Coach Dale Hunter have adopted an opportunistic, defense-first, shot-blocking style that’s not unlike the Rangers’.
“We know that the Rangers won our conference and they were the top team all year,” Hunter said. “They play hard, they block shots, they’ve got good skill up front, a good goalie and their [defensemen] are strong. So we’ll have to be at our best.”
If the Capitals are going to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1998, they must not stray from Hunter’s game plan. It also wouldn’t hurt to get meaningful contributions in these areas as well:
●Between the pipes. On Friday, New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy. Holtby won’t need to outduel King Henrik, but the rookie will likely need to match him, save for save.
Against the Bruins, Holtby had nights when he looked unbeatable (such as Game 1). He also had nights where he looked his age (Games 3 and 6). Lundqvist, meantime, limited the Senators to two or fewer goals in five of the series’ seven games. The 30-year-old Swede also had a shutout.
But there is reason for optimism: In his first career start on Broadway three weeks ago, Holtby stole the spotlight from Lundqvist, made 35 saves and beat the Rangers, 4-1.
“Especially getting used to the lighting and the different confines,” Holtby said when asked if that experience helps. “It’s not exactly your typical building. Darker buildings usually impact the goalies more than usual.”
●On special teams. The Capitals’ penalty kill ranks second in the playoffs, having extinguished 91.3 percent of the opportunities while limiting Boston to two goals and a total of 25 shots spread over seven games. Against the Rangers, penalty-kill specialists such as Brooks Laich and Karl Alzner must contain Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, New York’s most dangerous forwards.
Washington’s power play, on the other hand, was a disappointment in the first round. The unit converted only 3 of 19 opportunities (15.8 percent) against the Bruins. At times, it fell victim to overpassing. Other times, it appeared to lack flow and cohesion.
The good news for the Capitals is that the Rangers’ power play isn’t any better. It scored only five times on 32 opportunities (15.6 percent) against the Senators.
●From the star players, too. The Capitals received timely goals from unlikely sources such as Ward, Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks in the first round. In this round, it’s not unreasonable to believe they’ll need Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to step forward. Ovechkin had one point in the final three games against the Bruins; Backstrom had two in that span.
Ovechkin hopes to find a little more room to maneuver against the Rangers after getting smothered by Boston defensemen Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. New York’s top defense pair against Ottawa was Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, though he may spend time matched up against Marc Staal, too.
“It’s probably going to be Girardi and Staal again [matched up] against my line,” Ovechkin said. “But I know how to play against them.”
If Ovechkin doesn’t manage to solve Girardi, it might not matter. The Capitals, he joked, have discovered another clutch performer who possesses a penchant for scoring big goals.
“He knows we love him [as] a person and a hockey player here,” the captain said of Ward, referring to the support the team has shown the winger the past three days. “He’s right now Michael Jordan of hockey.”