The Washington Times - April 19, 2012, 11:46AM

It was hard to see Mathieu Perreault figuring prominently into the Washington Capitals’ offense, even when he made the team out of training camp. Yet he was one of the more pleasant surprises of the regular season with 16 goals and 14 assists.

He sees the ice well, and he’s a creative guy that works hard,” coach Dale Hunter said. “Like during the year, Matty stepped up for us when Nicky went down and put a good season together.”

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With Nicklas Backstrom again out, though this time just for Game 4 because of a suspension, Perreault gets the golden opportunity to slide back between Jason Chimera and Alexander Semin in the familiar No. 2 center spot he occupied for much of the past few months.

We can’t replace Nicky, but at the same time, some guys have to step up and I’m one of those guys that will get that chance,” Perreault said. “I’m going to play probably with Chimmer and Semin who I played with for most of the second half of the year, so it’s nothing new for me.”

Perreault’s 16 regular-season goals tied him for fifth on the team with Brooks Laich, who signed a shiny six-year, $27 million deal last summer.

The 24-year-old started with limited expectations, and his role diminished greatly when the playoffs began. He played just 4:23 in Game 3, but now the Caps are counting on him to fill a huge void.

“It’s still hard, but I’ve gotten used to it,” Perreault said. “It’s the most important time of the year and it doesn’t matter to me; I’m going to come hard and play hard like I do every game and I’m just going to get more ice time and more minutes.”

Chemistry with Chimera and Semin should allow Perreault to fit back in with ease, but he’s also expected to get some power-play time on the second unit with Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer, Dennis Wideman and John Carlson.

“Before Nicky came back, I was playing with them on the power play so it’s not going to be something new; we kind of know what we’re doing out there,” Perreault said. “So it’s hard to lose a guy like that but it’s a chance for a guy like me to step up his game.”

And while Perreault is prepared for a more substantial role, Thursday night will still be just his fourth career Stanley Cup Playoff game.

“The pace is a little faster and it’s a little bit of a different game,” he said. “Obviously the refs don’t call as much so it’s a little harder and there’s less space out there because guys can hook and hold a little bit more.”

Doesn’t seem like the ideal climate for the diminutive forward from Drummondville, Quebec, who relies on his speed much more than size. There’s more hitting in the playoffs, but Perreault is adjusting.

Yeah, a lot of hitting. Even myself, I’m getting a couple of hits every game,” he said. “Usually I like to get a few body checks but with the playoffs, you go in hard and try to finish all your checks more.”

And let’s not forget, Perreault pulled off a hat trick against the Bruins in January.