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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.

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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.

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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.

latta-chatting-with-barch

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.

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Panthers center Marcel Goc then stepped in to avenge the hit. It was Goc’s first NHL fight. He did not fare well.

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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.

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The Panthers did not attempt a single even-strength shot while Latta was on the ice.

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.

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  • Mike Bender

    Too bad we can’t hear what he is saying to get those players riled up. lol

  • Shaun Phillips

    Makes me wonder if he can have this kind of success on the 4th line, what’s preventing Wilson from the same? How much of Latta’s success has to do with his offensive development in Hershey, while Wilson’s struggles could be due to a lack of the same devel time?

  • Justin

    We might criticize GMGM a lot, because as a Caps fan, that’s our job. However, it appears he’s finally delivering on a complaint we’ve had for the past couple years: that our team is too soft to compete down the stretch in the playoffs as opponents become more and more bristly. As it stands, the 24-46-43 line looks like one that can give as good as it gets, and should be a headache for other teams with all the chirping. Wilson and Latta might be young and inexperienced at the National level, but I like the grit that they’re bringing and I just hope that they can chip in a bit offensively to compliment the sandpaper.

  • Justin

    Agreed. The jump in difficulty between the OHL and the NHL must be tremendous, and hopefully Wilson being charged with 4th line duties doesn’t hamper his offensive touch. Would hate to see him become a perpetual grinder instead of the Lindros/Bertuzzi-type that we foresee him to be.

  • Chris Cerullo

    Love him so far. I’ve always wanted that Steve Ott kinda guy in our lineup and he seems to be providing that. In that gif from the goal in Hershey what on earth is the defenseman in front of the goalie even doing….

  • Danny

    Wilson is also just a kid, and we have to remember that. His body isn’t even fully developed yet, and he’ll only get stronger as he matures. He’ll be fine, we just have to be patient.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    Same here, I think the team’s always needed a pest, a guy who gets under the other team’s skin and draws penalties. I really like how Latta has played this year.

    On that Hershey goal, that defenseman is clearly of AHL quality. But he’s trying to take away the far side of the net. He figures, well, if the goalie takes away the short-side, he won’t score here. Unfortunately for him, Latta plows through and scores short-side anyways. It’s a perfect shot.

  • JenniferH

    Yeah, I’m liking Latta. He’s making his presence known… in a very good way. And he tried to help Holtby in that assault by Emery too, so good guy there too.

  • BPThomas

    I’m with you on that, I’d really like to get him mic’d up.

  • Myan

    Getting a helper, throwing huge hits, punching some Cats, drawing penalties and trying to step in for Holts…I’d say this kid has had a great week. I’m really looking forward to seeing not only how he plays but how his style affects Wilson’s. I’ve always felt like Wilson has so much more talent than the grinder/”enforcer” he’s been playing as this season. I’d like to see how Latta’s style rubs off on Wilson. I’d like to see Wilson look to get himself into a playmaking position instead of trying to line up a huge hit on every single shift.

  • whitebearsox23

    I absolutely love this guy. I am so excited to have him and Tom Wilson playing on this team. Not only those young guys, but the Caps have Orlov, Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carrick, etc. in the system.

    But like I said, Wilson and Latta are great. They go 100% all the time, hit hard, talk a lot of sh**, and provide exactly what the Capitals have been missing for the past couple of years.

    I know it has been a slow start but I think the Caps can turn it around. Keep Erat with Ovi and Backstrom on the 1st line and see how that works. Just my two cents.