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‘Sandpaper’ lets Caps resurface their offense

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Washington Capitals were unquestionably one of the most talented teams in the NHL last season. A couple of traits that were questioned periodically included a collective willingness to manufacture "dirty" goals and to play with the grit and sacrifice needed in the postseason.

These are largely indefinable "skills," but the consensus from media members in the United States and Canada after Washington lost to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals was the Caps needed more of "it" if they were going to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Grit, toughness, character, a willingness to sacrifice the body in front of the net and in the corners - these are the types of strengths that free agent additions Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison possess. Toss in a healthy Chris Clark, and the Washington forwards are going to have a different look this season.

"It brings some sandpaper to our lineup," Brooks Laich said. "Those guys aren't afraid to get their nose dirty - in fact, they kind of like it. That's their game. They go out there looking for it. Perimeter play and the fancy passing is nice, but usually goals are the result of someone going to the net or fighting off a check and winning a battle."

After the Penguins advanced to the conference finals, a member of their organization offered this assessment of the Caps: "They have two lines that play one way, and two that play a completely different way. It made it easier to match up against them."

Translation: Some of the guys on the top two lines weren't willing to adapt their style for what is sometimes needed to succeed in the playoffs. It is not a coincidence that the line of Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley proved to be surprisingly successful offensively, while the guys in the top six not named Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom scuffled.

The Caps will certainly miss Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. Fedorov provided veteran leadership, and Kozlov meshed well with Ovechkin and Backstrom. But it is not far-fetched to believe that by moving Knuble and Morrison into those roles that they will actually improve what is already a high-powered offense.

"Obviously you need your great players, but any team that wins it often ends up being the grittier guys who are the difference," Bradley said. "When you add a guy like Knuble and Morrison and when Clark is healthy - those are guys who will always play really hard and they add a lot of experience."

This is not meant to be a European vs. North American argument, which people who rely on outdated stereotypes often suggest. Ovechkin and Backstrom are "gritty" players, and before Max Talbot potted two goals in Game 7 against Detroit, it was actually Ruslan Fedotenko who was providing secondary scoring and physical play as the unsung hero for Pittsburgh. The Caps did not get tougher because they subtracted two Russians and added a couple of guys from Michigan, but Knuble and Morrison do add some ingredients the Caps were a bit light on.

Thanks to the slight tweak of the roster (and Clark's return), coach Bruce Boudreau has plenty of options to be creative with his forward lines. He could pencil in a lineup with Knuble on one line, Clark with one group and Laich part of another unit - three scoring lines, each equipped with a guy who delivers a presence in front of the net and soft hands to bang home rebounds.

"We were talking on the phone with the free agents, and there were two or three guys we liked. When it came right down to it, we said, 'We need the net guy,' " general manager George McPhee said. "There was a good example that in Buffalo [in Thursday's preseason game]. It was a 2-1 game and we needed an ugly goal - and we got it because [Knuble] was standing right in front of the goal. Yeah, we needed that."