The Nashville Predators made the playoffs seven of the past eight seasons, so Martin Erat got plenty of games to build up a resume there. By the numbers, it’s not an impressive one: eight goals, 15 assists and a minus-7 rating in 46 postseason games.
But that was part of coach Barry Trotz’s defensive system. Surrounded by more high-end, offensive talent and in Adam Oates’ aggressive setup for the Washington Capitals, this could be Erat’s chance to break out.
“On paper there was kind of a lack of scoring,” ex-Predators and current Caps teammate Joel Ward said. “At the same time, every year when I was there in playoffs too, he was always one of the go-to guys obviously on the power play, penalty kill and playing five-on-five. I think with a little bit more depth here, I think it’ll create a little bit more opportunity for him to kind of do his thing. He’ll create chances for sure. Just worrying about just bearing down on chances.”
Erat has shown a deft playmaking ability since the Caps acquired him at the deadline, even if he hasn’t been prominent on the score sheet.The 31-year-old left wing has fit in well on a second line with skilled center Mike Ribeiro and big right wing Troy Brouwer.
“You see, obviously, why he’s been a top quality player in this league,” Oates said. “When you get traded, it doesn’t always click at first. Some guys are more comfortable right off the hop than others. I think he’s done a great job and played pretty good hockey.”
Erat played pretty good hockey in Nashville, but the production was rarely there in the playoffs. He had one breakout series in seven playoffs, scoring four goals and adding an assist in 2010 against the Chicago Blackhawks. But Erat was also responsible for the turnover late in Game 6 that allowed the Blackhawks to win the series and eliminate the Predators.
Nashville never got out of the second round during Erat’s time there, but he hopes Washington is a fresh start.
“What I learn the last couple years: anybody can win it,” Erat said. “It’s a different styles; East-West is totally different hockey. But with the playoffs it’s the same. It doesn’t matter how, but you have to win the games. If you have to do score seven goals or if you have to win 1-0, it’s the way it’s going to be. You have to just get four games and that’s the most important thing.”
If the Caps are to beat the sixth-seeded New York Rangers and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, it might come down to Erat and his linemates producing. John Tortorella figures to match his top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi up with the Caps’ first line of Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.
That means Erat, Ribeiro and Brouwer could see Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman or John Moore and Steve Eminger.
“Just like the way we look at them, you want to be able to have balance throughout the lineup and have everybody be a threat,” Oates said. “The more you can create that and get that, it makes it difficult on the other team.”
Erat, despite past playoff stumbles, is a threat because he’s talented and can do a lot in a little bit of space.
“I’d say that one his strengths is puck possession in the corners,” said Caps defenseman Jack Hillen, who played with Erat in Nashville. “He protects the puck is well, he’s able to cut back at forwards well, and certainly in the playoffs when its tight-checking I think that having those types of players really benefit you.”
Given the Rangers’ acumen for blocking shots, Erat’s ability to shield himself and hold onto the puck is an advantage.
“Marty, I don’t think a lot of people notice, but for how small he is, he protects the puck really well down there,” Brouwer said. “He’s got a great one-man cycle, I know a lot of the time he doesn’t necessarily want a guy to come in and help unless he really needs it, so there are a lot of times where it looks like he’s going to get out-muscled by a bigger guy but he still continues to hold on to that puck.
Ward said he’d try to get Erat the puck early when they were linemates in Nashville. The veteran right wing succeeded in the postseason in part because he was able to get it back with opportunities to score.
“He’ll find you if you get open, so just got to work for that space,” Ward said. “But he’s a crafty guy; he competes hard, he wants to win and you can’t ask for more from a guy.”
Except, perhaps, some more production. He doesn’t have to be the “go-to” guy with the Caps, so there’s less pressure on Erat, but given how much New York is likely to key on Ovechkin, secondary scoring will have to come from somewhere.
Armed with years of playoff experience, Erat could be the man to provide it.
“We’ve got a great team,” he said. “It’s all about who wants it more. It doesn’t matter if you play playoffs for first time or if you’ve been in the playoffs for the last 10 years. It’s all about who wants it more, and in the end, that’s how it works.”
ERAT IN THE PLAYOFFS, YEAR-BY-YEAR
2012: 1 goal, 3 assists in 10 games
2011: 1 goal, 5 assists in 10 games
2010: 4 goals, 1 assist in 6 games
2008: 1 goal, 3 assists in 6 games
2007: 0 goals, 1 assist in 3 games
2006: 1 goal, 1 assist in 6 games
2004: 0 goals, 1 assist in 6 games