[Editor's note: Russian Machine Never Breaks is delighted to welcome Chris Gordon of Caps Snaps to the team. Chris is an accomplished photographer and interviewer, so he should make the rest of the staff look bad on a regular basis.]
The Washington Capitals have been struggling to score lately. Players that could be relied on for goals in the past have looked off their game, and the team’s power play has been anemic. One bright spot, however, has come an unlikely source: forward Matt Hendricks. He has had goals in each of his last two games including two deke-tastic tallies, one against the Leafs on Saturday and one in the shootout against the Rangers Monday night at Verizon Center.
“I knew he was going to do that move,” said Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who doesn’t expect opposing teams to catch on anytime soon. “He’s done it to me three or four times in practice and still scored. It took me a while to figure it out. I don’t how much video guys are going to do on Matt Hendricks,” he added with a laugh.
The 29 year-old Hendricks has become a fan favorite in Washington this season with his enthusiasm, toughness and a nasty black eye that HBO made famous.
“You’re not going to see me on the score sheet every night but if I can chip a goal in here or there, then it’s great, it helps out,” Hendricks said after a recent practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington.
“I’m here to be that guy, that energy guy, the guy the keeps the guys going and keeps them focused, kind of a vocal guy in the locker room. Just somebody that’s reliable every night,” he added.
Hendricks has been more than willing to drop the gloves for the Caps, taking exception to Boston’s Gregory Campbell, not once but twice this season and recently fighting Tampa’s Steve Downie while blindfolded — all good for a team-high 10 fighting majors.
“I think it’s gotten me to where I am now,” Hendricks said, referring to his fisticuffs. “I think that being that player, that you can trust in all situations but is also able to stick up for his teammate and can help light a spark for the team, I think it’s definitely a help.”
Born in Minnesota, Hendricks models his game after former North Stars and Capitals player Dino Ciccarelli, who was known not just for his gifted scoring ability but for his brash and gritty style of play. The Caps plan to honor Ciccarelli, who was recently inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame, before their game against the Canadiens on February 1st.
But Hendricks didn’t always appreciate the little things in the game that can turn a career minor-leaguer in a staple on one of the NHL’s premier teams. Hendricks spent the first six years of his hockey career bouncing around the AHL, including a stint with the Hershey Bears.
“It was tough,” he said. “[A] thing I wish I would have learned earlier in my career was the other things that make a player valuable. It’s not just about scoring goals and assists and things, it’s the energy, the sandpaper, the gritty type of play that was got me here. I wish I would have learned that a little bit earlier.”
After breaking into the NHL full-time last year, playing 56 games for the Avalanche, one might think that Hendricks would be snatched up by a team hungry for his all-out game. However, he was unable to earn himself a contract in off-season.
“It just wasn’t there,” Hendricks said back in September.
With their training camp just about to start, the Caps came calling, offering him a professional try-out with no guarantee the he would ever see the ice in a Washington sweater.
“It was nerve-wracking. It was a lot of pressure on myself and, you know, my family. It was kind of a hard time. I knew if I came in here and performed and did what they were looking for that I would have a good opportunity,” Hendricks said.
He was quick to show off his offensive fire-power to DC’s brass, notching a hat-trick in his first pre-season game with the Caps. On September 27, Hendricks was inked to a one-year deal and went on to make the final roster cut.
“They’ve been very loyal to me and I’m very fortunate and very thankful to the organization,” he said.
So far, Hendricks has nothing but good things to say about the Nation’s capital. “It’s been great.” he said. “The rink’s been so loud.”