Latta poses with his milestone puck. (Photo credit: Patrick McDermott)
The Washington Capitals have had a wealth of fourth line enforcers over the last decade: Stephen Peat, Donald Brashear, Matt Bradley, and even Matt Hendricks. But don’t lump center Michael Latta, the other guy in the Filip Forsberg/Martin Erat trade, into that category.
Over the first month of the season, Latta has been playing some of the most inspired hockey of his career. And it’s because he’s doing a little bit of everything well.
Latta is irritating to play against. I’d even call him a pest. He constantly runs his mouth on the ice (like Tom Wilson) and is a physical, hard-hitting player. He sometimes plays on the edge, delivering cheap shots behind the play, but rarely is a penalty called on him. Usually he draws retaliatory penalties from the guy he’s terrorizing. And if Latta’s challenged to fight, he can back it up.
None of that is too uncommon, but Latta also has some offensive talent. He had 38 points in 76 games between AHL Milwaukee and Hershey last year. This season, he has been Hershey’s second leading scorer before getting called up to the Capitals. He is blossoming as a player, translating the finishing ability he’s been developing in Hershey into his first NHL point: a beautiful assist on John Carlson’s goal.
When the Martin Erat trade happened last year at the trade deadline, many people (including me) criticized George McPhee for trading away the team’s second best prospect for an aging forward and a nobody. Latta is belying that descriptor, and he may yet have a long career in the NHL– just like Forsberg.
Take a look at Latta’s week and you’ll see why I’m excited.
Two weeks ago, Latta was serving in the American Hockey League, playing for the Hershey Bears. Playing the Hartford Wolfpack that Saturday night, Latta scored a goal, had three shots, and fought Darroll Powe. The bout was picturesque.
But Latta’s goal was even more impressive. After some aggressive forechecking in the corner, Latta went strong to the net and backhanded the puck over Scott Stajcer’s shoulder for an unlikely goal.
The next night against the Norfolk Admirals, Latta tallied a secondary assist on Dane Byers’ first goal as a Bear.
Three days later, Latta was recalled by the Caps for the second time this season.
His first game in this new stint came against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night. Latta and his mates on the fourth line changed the momentum of the game late in the first period with a strong shift in the Flyers zone. Latta seemed to say something not-so-nice about a Flyer player– or possibly his mother– after one whistle. Everyone in orange then tried to fight him. Flyers players shouted from the bench. Pest status: achieved.
Nicklas Backstrom scored a few minutes later. The Flyers were rattled. The Caps went on to win the brawl-filled game 7-0.
Playing the Florida Panthers on Saturday, Latta stuck to the same script, exchanging smack talk with Krys Barch during warm-ups.
As the Capitals struggled to get zone time in the first period, the Caps fourth line brought some energy. First, Latta laid a big body check on Tomas Fleischmann at center ice. Not a good moment for Flash to get cute with the puck.
Panthers center Marcel Goc then stepped in to avenge the hit. It was Goc’s first NHL fight. He did not fare well.
On the next shift, 20 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom scored to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.
In the second period, Latta led a rush into the zone and hit John Carlson with a slick cross-ice saucer pass. It was Latta’s first NHL point.
thanks everyone for the nice tweets, felt nice to get my first NHL point and even better to get the win, feeling the love
— Michael Latta (@Latta17) November 3, 2013
Latta has been doing it all the last few games: chirping, punching, and scoring. The fourth line is where you’d expect to see an energy player, and Latta is being precisely that. That’s exactly why George McPhee keeps on recalling Latta and finding a spot for him in the line-up. These are positive minutes, positive plays. He’s doing the little things to win.