Joel Ward will play for the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers on Thursday night after missing almost a month with a bruised left knee.
“Yeah, I get a chance to play,” Ward said. “I’m excited, for sure, that I get to reunite with my buddies. I’m pretty happy about that.”
Ward will play on the fourth line alongside left wing Matt Hendricks and center Jay Beagle.
“Having Joel back on the right side is going to give us a little more offense through the lineup,” Hendricks said. “His ability to keep the cycles alive, keep control of the puck in the offensive zone, he’s very good at that.”
Ward missed the final nine games of the regular season after blocking a shot from Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo on April 7. Only recently did his left knee feel good enough for the 32-year-old right wing to play.
“Every day I’ve felt better. I’m just looking to go out there and let the adrenaline take place and just play,” Ward said. “But I’ve felt a lot better last the couple of days, for sure.”
Ward, perhaps more than anyone else, benefitted from this being the final series to start. He might have tried to play if Game 1 was Tuesday, but Thursday is much better.
“Any time you get an opportunity to get a couple more days of rest you take advantage of it, so it’s actually been pretty helpful,” Ward said.
At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, Ward has the kind of size and grit that fits the tighter style of the playoffs.
“He had a good series last year, a good playoffs last year, a big goal to win the Boston series,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “When he was in Nashville, he had a lot of timely goals, key goals. So he’s a clutch guy; he’s that guy that pressure and the intensity of playoffs don’t really faze him.”
Ward scored the Game 7 overtime winner to beat the Bruins but also took a four-minute high-sticking penalty in Game 5 against at New York that cost the Caps.
Under coach Adam Oates, Ward has been used more five-on-five, on the power play and the penalty kill than he was under Dale Hunter. He had eight goals and 12 assists in 39 games.
“He’s been one of our better players all year long, had a great year for us,” Oates said. “We missed him. We’re glad he’s healthy and can play.”
Ward doesn’t know if his minutes will be monitored. Oates emphasized the depth at right wing for why Ward will start on the fourth line.
“I just obviously want to contribute and do whatever it takes just to win the game,” Ward said. “I think that’s the main thing obviously, so whatever I’ve got to do to play, but [we’ll] kind of see how the game goes for sure and we’ll go from there. But I’m just excited to be back.”
There are no other lineup surprises. Braden Holtby starts in goal, and everything else is the same. Aaron Volpatti, Wojtek Wolski, Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti are the healthy scratches.
Lineup for Game 1 against the Rangers:
Marcus Johansson – Nicklas Backstrom – Alex Ovechkin
Martin Erat – Mike Ribeiro – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Mathieu Perreault – Eric Fehr
Matt Hendricks – Jay Beagle – Joel Ward
Karl Alzner – Mike Green
John Erskine – John Carlson
Jack Hillen – Steve Oleksy