Photo credit: Patrick McDermott
The fourth line of the Washington Capitals is an interesting thing. It features a $4.5 million veteran playmaker on the left (Martin Erat), a 22-year-old up-and-down call-up at center (Michael Latta), and a 19-year-old wrecking ball on the right (Tom Wilson). We’ll focus on Latta for now. In his return to the lineup, the new guy drew two penalties and delivered some nice hits. That’s about all you can ask from a fourth liner, though the trio’s good game was muted by Carolina’s winning third period goal.
“Drawing two penalties is excellent,” head coach Adam Oates told reporters. “You want that from that line. You want them to create opportunities and get momentum: that’s what a forth line does.”
When the Caps traded top prospect Filip Forsberg away for Erat, Latta was also thrown in by Nashville, though Washington’s management insisted that the gritty center was more than just filler. Sure enough, Latta made his NHL debut in the Capitals’ opener in Chicago, a game in which he was solid, if unremarkable. Forty-eight hours later, though, Jay Beagle reclaimed his usual spot as the fourth-line pivot. The Caps claimed defenseman Alexander Urbom off waivers and Latta went down to Hershey. Experiment over for now, it seemed. Jack Hillen, though, suffered a serious leg injury soon after. Suddenly, there was cap space for Latta again. Thursday, he got another chance. He did well.
The first penalty Latta drew was from little dude Nathan Gerbe, who got tangled up with multiple Caps players during his shift. Finally, he had enough, shoving Latta away and getting called for a slash, putting Washington’s excellent power play on the ice.
Latta also got paired off with Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison, with the two exchanging jabs. When he spoke to me after the game, Latta sported a bulge on his lip that would put Steve Oleksy to shame, which he said resulted from “just a couple of boys going at it.”
Later, with one second left in the second frame, Latta drew another penalty, this time by Canes star Eric Staal, who was whistled for a trip. The Caps didn’t score any of their power plays Thursday, but with the team currently converting on more than a third of their extra man chances, plays like Latta’s will lead to a bunch of goals.
“Drew a couple penalties, made some hits, had them in their zone most of the game,” Latta said of the positives from Thursday’s game, though not before verbally kicking himself for the late-game goal against. “As a fourth liner, you gotta a job to do.” Latta, for what it’s worth, was not at fault on the tally.
If he plays well, Latta is just as good as Jay Beagle but with better offensive skills. Judging by tonight, Beags will probably be facing another night in the press box with his flip phone. Seriously, how does he survive with that thing?
Additional reporting by Ian Oland, who may be dead.