Remember how about nine months ago Capitals’ fans began realizing that goaltending in the organization — which just a few years ago was a position whose quality was heralded exclusively by Olie Kolzig, without much in the way of promising prospects behind him– suddenly, and at long last, was flush with high-end, precocious depth? And remember how just about nine days ago there remained uncertainty about the quality of depth at the center ice position in the organization? After Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory by the Capitals over Boston at Verizon Center, quality and depth at center ice may no longer be a concern as well.
I arrived at Verizon Center for the first home exhibition game the other night looking forward to seeing who among Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin, and Marcus Johansson I’d believe would audition best for Capitals’ management and the paucity of roster openings up front this preseason. I left the arena liking all three – a lot!
Here’s what you notice about the candidates leading the uprising in the middle of the ice this fall: they all skate magnificently; they all possess elite hockey sense; they all play with poise on the puck; they all make plays. And there isn’t a checking line center among them; meaning, Capitals’ scouts have likely found high-end playmaking pivots in regions of entry drafts teams seldom do. And all three, despite being modest in size, seemingly play games larger than their frames would lead you to believe they could, or should. Matt Hendricks didn’t dress for Tuesday night’s game, but he made an important statement about his roster candidacy in Wednesday night’s rematch with the Bs up in Boston. He brings a different element to his center candidacy: some feistiness and grit.
Would you wish there could be a wee bit more bruising and brawn among the young kids in the middle? Sure, that never hurts. But what’s most important is skill set, mobility, and hockey sense, and those three youngins have it, while Matt Hendricks compliments them with grit and guile and some big-league experience.
* * * * *
At 6:59 of the first period of hockey’s return to home ice this season on Tuesday Old Time Hockey made a most welcome, most overdue return. That’s when D.J. King announced his arrival before hometown fans with an impressive slow dance with Boston’s Shawn Thornton. The fans at Verizon Center were obviously thrilled. But so was Capitals’ head coach Bruce Boudreau:
“I am not sure it [sparked momentum], but it made the guys feel better on the bench. Like they had a big brother out there. I am sure, because that’s the feeling I got. We never really had that tough, physical presence last year, and he played pretty well too.”
That’s quite an endorsement of Old Time Hockey from a coach whose teams thus far in the NHL haven’t much been known for playing rugged. What may have been even more exciting than King’s quality showing at center-ice against Thornton was his reaction in the postgame to Gregory Campbell’s lack of caution on Alexander Ovechkin late in the game. My collegaue Elisabeth Meinecke chronciled it, but King’s reaction is worth perusing anew, and offers what I think will be a whole new mindset the Capitals will bring to the ice this season — at least so far as looking out for one another.
“It’s tough watching when you’re not even on the ice or anything [and] you see him go into the boards like that,” King said. “It’s something you put up in the head there, and then the next time you play them and you get a good chance of running someone, you can get a good hit on someone.”
King didn’t dress on Wednesday night, but Matt Hendricks did, and it took all of two seconds for the upstart, longshot roster candidate to address Campbell’s liberties after the game’s opening draw. A score was settled. We didn’t see much of this the past couple of seasons in D.C. It’s a breath of fresh enforcement air. Again, Gabby took note.
“He didn’t need to be told,” says Boudreau of Hendricks’ actions. “He just watched the game [Tuesday] night and knew what he had to do. I thought, ‘What a team thing [to do].’ It was great.”
Great, yes. Exciting, certainly. And a welcomed return to intrinsic — genetic — hockey culture.
D.J. King’s fisticuffs Tuesday night, when watched from on high, struck a chord of familiarity among a few members of the media. There just seemed something familiar about that scene below. King is no token enforcer but rather a brutal and brawny beast, a heavyweight among heavyweights, and he’s in that special class of proactive antagonist. He sets tones, early. Been a while since the Caps had such a menace. King also wears number 17 — worn before him by Chris Clark but also by Chris Simon. Simon was probably the last legitimate, proactively brutal heavyweight to wear a Caps’ sweater. He was also a key contributor to the lone Capitals’ club to make it to the Stanley Cup finals.
It’s good be to tough again.