“Just the big guy on campus, you know?” Ward explained. “The Big Cheese, it’s like the king on the throne. I mean, the Cheese kind of holds everything together in here, you know?”
On Thursday night, Ward, playing on the first line again with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, showed why he’s such a big deal. The winger scored with 1.3 seconds remaining in the third period after being marvelously set up by Alex Ovechkin. Ward also scored in game seven on Monday. He famously netted the series-ending goal in deciding game against the Boston Bruins two years ago.
So, it’s the Rangers again. For the fifth time in seven seasons, the Washington Capitals will square off against the folks from Madison Square Garden in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. These series have produced signature moments in Capitals history, such as Sergei Fedorov‘s game seven winner in 2009, and crushing defeats, like when the Rangers outlasted the Capitals by just one goal in game seven of the second round in 2012, booking a spot in the Eastern Conference Final. But, as is their pattern this year, the Washington Capitals will tell you this team is different. They don’t pay attention to the past.
“All that old stuff, get rid of it,” head coach Barry Trotz, in his first year with the Capitals, said. “Let’s look to a new era. Let’s build something.”
The Washington Capitals dominated play in game seven against the New York Islanders through two periods. They were constantly parked in the Isles zone, putting pucks on goaltender Jaroslav Halak with ease. The Islanders could barely muster a whimper, with just six shots on goal as the middle frame wound down. Somehow, though, Washington hadn’t found a way to convert: missed deflections, timely saves, and bad bounces led to a scoreboard that reflected little about what happening on the ice.
Then, with 1:25 left in the second period, Joel Ward broke through, poking Brooks Orpik‘s shot through the legs of Halak. Verizon Center erupted into a shining display of pure human joy. But it was still full of Washington Capitals fans, ready to have their hearts ripped out with final game, final period collapse. And just three minutes and 13 seconds into the closing frame, Frans Nielsen did just that with an innocent-looking wrist shot from the slot that trickled through Braden Holtby’s pads. With that, the game was tied. Though the Caps had dominated play, the game looked like it would end with another bitter, bruising fight, with one bad bounce deciding each team’s fate.
But instead, the game-winner would buck the thuggery the series had shown. With around seven minutes left in the zero-sum game, Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up Jason Chimera‘s pass at the far wall, before cutting right through the heart of the New York zone. The play was magisterial, with Kuznetsov floated past Islanders defenders. Instead of firing the puck off at his first look at the net, Kuznetsov held on to it until he got to the near circle. That’s when Halak went down. Kuznetsov saw an opening.
“I just put puck in the net,” he told reporters after the game.
How do you beat Jaroslav Halak? The answer is almost always traffic up front. That’s how Alex Ovechkingot the Caps their first goal, a deflection in the first period. And that’s how, almost 60 minutes of play later, Nicklas Backstrom ended the game– as Joel Ward impersonated a wall in the slot.
John Tavares is one of the best hockey players on the planet. If the New York Islanders hope to take down Alex Ovechkin, the best hockey player on the planet, and the Washington Capitals, Tavares will have to play a leading role. So, quite obviously, one of the Caps primary concerns when game planning is shutting down the Isles superstar center.