This is a story about the Washington Capitals right winger with a penchant for swiping playoff spotlights, a veteran with a reputation forged in pressurized moments, but most importantly this is a story about Joel Ward’s butt. It’s a large rump by his own admission, one for which he nervously thanked his mother. It can shield opponents from pucks, bump them from forechecks and destroy centers of gravity. It can block incoming shots or deflect them toward the net, create goal-mouth traffic or sweep it away.
According to many of his teammates, Joel Ward’s butt represents one of the great immovable forces in the NHL.
“I was born with a big a--,” Ward said, “so I try to use it as best as I can.”
“He’s just a big dude,” forward Jason Chimera said. “He’s solid. You try to push him off in practice, you can’t do it.”
“If you have the puck, he’s awesome at just — boom — sticking that butt out,” forward Jay Beagle said.
“You mean the buttocks?” Coach Barry Trotz asked.
Indeed. The posterior. Tush. Heiny. Keister. Pick your euphemism. Ward discovered the value of backing up and boxing out while playing junior hockey, when a former coach taught him how to use his derriere to protect pucks along the wall. Trotz noticed it in Nashville, when Ward came to training camp as an undrafted free agent and impressed the coaching staff by staying composed while pressed against the glass, scrapping for possession.
And if they hadn’t already known, the New York Islanders learned Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum, the 11th straight game Ward worked on the top line opposite forward Alex Ovechkin. Ward and Ovechkin finished first and second, respectively, among all skaters in even-strength shot differential, largely thanks to Ward’s ability to keep cycles alive along the boards, and his physical play helped blind goaltender Jaroslav Halak on both Washington goals.
“I got to use what works for me,” he said. “I guess if you have a go-to move, you try to use that. For me, I have to protect the puck, just to get a little more time. It helps to make plays, see if someone’s open. Just body positioning, trying to get down low and find your way.”
Ward coyly declined to confirm whether Nicklas Backstrom’s overtime winner brushed his butt on its way toward the net, citing the Capitals’ series-evening victory as the most important matter, but the sequence began when Ward nudged the puck away from Johnny Boychuk, gained inside position and opened a lane for Backstrom to shoot.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik bled from his cheek when a skate sliced it open. Ward’s cheeks helped the Capitals regain home-ice advantage entering Thursday’s Game 5 at Verizon Center.
“That’s one of his great assets,” forward Curtis Glencross said. “In the last four games here, that’s been his gravy.”
No stranger to playoff success, Ward, 34, arrived in Washington understanding why the organization offered a $12 million contract, which former general manager George McPhee estimated was 15 percent more than any other bid. Under Trotz in Nashville, he notched 13 points in 12 games during the 2010-11 postseason, earning the new deal with the Capitals.
One year later, Ward forever became a franchise hero by clinching a series win over Boston with an overtime goal in Game 7.
“I came here from a good playoff run. I knew that I was just here to help,” he said. “That’s all I wanted to do, was come here and help, not try to step on anyone’s toes. I didn’t want to try to be no superhero. I really just wanted to be here, find my groove and help the team win as best I can, and I knew I could prove it.”
Reunited with Trotz in Washington, Ward endured an early demotion to the fourth line to finish with 34 points in 82 games. He killed penalties, mostly beside Chimera, and was stationed in the slot for the second power-play unit, where he was tasked with sweeping up rebounds and earning “greasy” goals. Then seven games before the playoffs began, Trotz moved Ward to the top line; after that, the Capitals closed their regular season with a 5-1-1 record.
“He’s been huge for us, getting that line the puck and grinding down low and playing the playoff style of hockey you have to play to be successful, going to the net and staying in front of the net,” Beagle said. “I’ve really liked his play. It’s been fun to watch.”
Known for playing catch with a baseball during pregame warmups, getting trapped in a bathroom stall and masterminding “Reggae Saturdays,” when only that genre bumps inside the locker room, Ward is among the Capitals’ most popular players. Throw in the work ethic, the underdog ascent from the University of Prince Edward Island to a 500th career NHL game earlier this season and, of course, the buttocks? No wonder Ward hasn’t taken a back seat during these playoffs.
“Kind of had good practice over the years,” he said. “Just repetition and with my rear end. Again, I try to use it as best as I can.”