The last few weeks have been enough to turn even the most stalwart of Caps fans unhinged and overstressed monsters. It’d be really easy to become cynical and cop an attitude about the team, but that’s why it’s so important to keep everything in perspective.
Reader Taylor P. wrote us a story last week that was exactly what we needed. Taylor and her brother had an encounter with Eric Fehr and Troy Brouwer at last Tuesday’s game against the Penguins. It was a little moment, but maybe little moments are what this team and this community need to remind ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place.
Only one line on the Capitals is made up entirely of double-digit scorers: the third line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward. As we’ve mentioned before, they have been Washington’s top scoring threat outside of Alex Ovechkin this season. Sunday, Ward tallied 20 goals for the first time in career, while also assisting on Chimera’s foot-goal earlier in the first period.
“My karma paid off,” Ward told me after the game. “For me, I just hide in the weeds and try to look for some loose pucks.”
Ward had already topped his previous career high of 17 goals on the first of the month in Boston. Always a solid checking line forward, the 33-year-old has taken off as an offensive force this season. He already has six more goals this year than he did in his first two seasons with the Caps combined (six in ’11-’12, eight in ’13). Caps head coach Adam Oates has also given Ward a prime spot down low on the power play this year, which accounted for his goal against the Leafs. Per your boy Mike Vogel, members of the third line have been on the ice for 10 of Washington’s last 13 goals.
“I’ve counted on Wardo and Chimmer all year long,” Oates. “They penalty kill, power play. Big bodies that we count on for a lot of minutes to get territory for us. It’s good to see them rewarded because you don’t get a lot of accolades based on that, doing grunt work.”
Eric Fehr celebrates his goal on Monday. (Photo: Rob Carr)
The Capitals have scored 185 goals this season. Alex Ovechkin has 44 of them. For most of the season, the team has struggled with secondary scoring. Lately, however, some of their complementary players are coming alive.
Troy Brouwer has eight goals in 11 games. Brooks Laich had goals in two straight games coming into Monday. Though Laich has being missing practices and morning skates due to a lingering groin injury, he played great against the Penguins, scoring a goal that was later credited to Nick Backstrom. Laich did register an assist, marking his third straight game with a point.
Monday, the third line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward provided half of the Capitals’ offense in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh. They greatly titled the ice in their favor, scoring the Caps’ first goal early in the game.
“I thought Fehrsie’s line might’ve had the best game they’ve had all year,” head coach Adam Oates said. “You feel it on the bench. You hear the guys talking on the bench. Your job is to try to have the next line follow and keep it going.”
After the game, the fan base — and the team — seemed to hit the panic button. People on Twitter smashed their keyboards, pointing out Washington’s glaring defensive holes and overreliance on the power play. None of that, however, is anything new. It’s not likely to change before playoff time either.
On Saturday, Adam Oates came up with wacky line combinations in hopes of righting Washington’s four game skid. It didn’t work.
The game got off to an awful start when Rick Nash picked off a silly defensive zone pass from Dmitry Orlovto put New York up just 70 seconds in. Fifteen minutes later, Nash was at it again. A lack of spatial awareness led to two hooking penalties on the Caps. On the ensuing 5-on-3, the former Blue Jacket floated a weak wrister through Phillip Grubauer’s legs. About a minute and a half later, Derek Stepan put the nail in Washington’s coffin with a shot though traffic. Braden Holtby came in, but the game was already over.
Ovechkin tried to give the Caps life with a 5-on-3 bullet early in the second, but Ryan Callahan put Washington back in their place just 86 seconds later. This was never a game anyway. Rangers slam Caps 4-1.
On January 15, 2014, In Interview, By Chris Gordon
Photo credit: Rob Carr
Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates has been searching for five-on-five production all season. While Alex Ovechkin has thrived, other members of top six have been less consistent. After the first period on Tuesday, Oates had a new iteration for the first two lines: Eric Fehr-Nicklas Backstrom-Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich-Mikahil Grabovksi-Alex Ovechkin.
“We haven’t scored a lot of goals the last couple games and he’s looking for a spark,” Laich told me of Oates’s change. “Our line had a couple of good chances.”
For most of the year, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin has skated on a line with super Swedes Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. While Nicky and Mojo are talented players, they are at times too timid to shoot the puck themselves. While Ovechkin leads the league in goals, his five-on-five output could still be better.
That may be why Adam Oates got all surly and switched up the lines three games ago. Ovechkin now skates with Mikhail Grabovski and Eric Fehr, players who are a bit more aggressive. And that may be why, on Thursday night in Tampa, we saw a little more of Alex Ovechkin the playmaker.
This season, Alex Ovechkin’s shot has been an unstoppable force of destruction. Ovi has registered 31 goals. His line’s scoring, however, has often been one-sided. Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s linemates for much of the season, have scored just six even-strength goals. When Ovi’s hitting the net, it’s not a problem. But if last year’s MVP hits some bad luck, as he did over the four games before last night, the line struggles. Ovechkin has just a single assist during five-on-five play.
“It’s not enough,” Oates said when I asked him about that stat. “It shows how much all three guys are important.”
For Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes, Oates switched up his lines, putting Ovechkin with Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski while placing Johansson and Backstrom with Brouwer.
Eric Fehr is awesome. We know this and he probably does too. Capitals head coach Adam Oates, however, took some time to come around. After trying Fehr out at center, among many other spots in the lineup, Oates benched Fehr for much of November. Since his return to the lineup November 23rd against Toronto, Fehr has nine points and five goals. He’s settled into a steady spot in the top six alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Troy Brouwer.
“We don’t necessarily have one specific position,” Fehr told me of his linemates. “I think we move around well. We read off each other pretty well.”
Tonight, Fehr scored two more — sort of. It looked like he tallied a goal midway through the second period with the Caps on the power play. Fehr received a pass in the slot from Nicklas Backstrom — also red hot lately — before firing the puck on Rangers goalie Cam Talbot. The puck got by the rookie netminder initially and the refs ruled the play a goal. However, video review showed the puck never crossed the line.
Washington Capitals forward Eric Fehr absorbed a scary hit a little more than halfway through a sleepy Caps-Panthers game. Florida’s Erik Gudbranson put a flying elbow into Eric Fehr’s head, sending Fehr reeling, then into the locker room.
The struggles of Troy Brouwer have been a long-running subplot in our weekly stat snapshot series. With just two goals and one assist at 5-on-5, Brouwer’s production has been way below what had been expected for him, and his underlying stats have been among the lowest on the team. Indeed, the numbers have been quite unkind to Troy, and at times they have even endangered our friendship with the Brouwer Rangers.