Capitals’ Mike Knuble calls healthy scratch ‘humbling’; status vs. Rangers uncertain

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When Mike Knuble was playing for the Boston Bruins and still trying to find a permanent role in the NHL, his brother Steve watched games with a keen eye on the bench more than the ice at the start.

“A lot of times I’d be counting the forwards to see if he was going to be that 12th forward,” Steve Knuble said.

It had been a while since Steve Knuble had to wonder. Thanks to Twitter he knew early Thursday that Mike was set to be a healthy scratch for the Washington Capitals.

That didn’t make it any easier for anyone in the Knuble family, as the 39-year-old was scratched for performance reasons for the first time since the 2002-03 season.

“It’s very humbling, and it takes you back to your days when you’re a young player trying to find your way,” Mike Knuble said. “You definitely don’t like it; you hate it as a player. You can’t walk around and pout, though, and be miserable about it. It’s not the first time it’s happened to somebody; it won’t be the last time. No player likes that. …

“You’re here to play hockey. You’re here to contribute to your team, and that’s the No. 1 purpose and No. 1 feeling you’ve got to have every night. … When you’re not told you’re going that night, it really stings.”

It’s not hard to see the frustration oozing from the ultra-competitive Knuble, whose streak of eight straight 20-goal seasons will almost certainly end this year. He has just three goals in 53 games, plus just eight assists and a minus-14 rating.

Bruce Boudreau demoted Knuble to the fourth line starting Oct. 29 in a loss at the Vancouver Canucks, and he’s bounced up and down since.

“I really haven’t locked in a niche. I haven’t found a niche. And that’s a big thing as a player, to find where you’re going to be in the lineup and what you can do,” Knuble said. “The numbers, the minus-14, you’ve got to cancel out some of those, being on the ice for offensive chances. You’ve got to start with offensive chances, then get some goals.”

Knuble hasn’t scored since Dec. 5 and doesn’t have a point in over a month. That lack of production was the reason for Dale Hunter making him a healthy scratch Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets.

“He told me I wasn’t going to play and just kind of said, ‘You haven’t scored in a while and bad plus-minus.’ I don’t think stats are the full story all the time,” Knuble said. ” ‘You haven’t scored in 29 games’ or whatever it was. I guess the statistics support it a little bit. But stats aren’t the full story all the time.”

Knuble’s story involves changing roles and very little time on the top line with Alex Ovechkin. Instead, the veteran right wing has spent more time with Matt Hendricks, Jeff Halpern and other grinders.

He has yet to find an offensive groove.

“I know Mike started a little slow. But that’s kind of been his MO over his last few years,” Steve Knuble said. “He seems to turn it on in January or February. You could see it right before the All-Star break, he was starting to get the chances that he normally was getting. And then the All-Star break … he had one or two games after that were average.”

It was apparently enough to lead to a seat in the press box.

“We watch game film, we look at stats,” Hunter said. “I have the final decision, but we do it as a committee in the coaches’ room and decide which is the best to try to win that game.”

The Caps lost in a shootout Thursday with Jay Beagle in the lineup replacing Knuble. And while Beagle is still finding his way in the NHL, Knuble’s time is waning. His contract with Washington, an extension signed last spring, is up after this season.

“[You think,] ‘How was the end going to play out?’ Everybody wants to wrap up like Mark Recchi and win it as a hero and a Stanley Cup,” Steve Knuble said. “He’s been fortunate to be around long enough and not have to bounce around at the end of his career.”

There’s uncertainty about Knuble’s career moving forward, but in the immediate future uncertainty about whether he’ll be in the Caps’ lineup Sunday at the New York Rangers. Being a healthy scratch for one game is one thing, but two in a row sends an entirely different message.

Hunter doesn’t seem concerned about any of this having a negative impact on the locker room.

“He’s a leader, so it’s always tough where you need leadership in the room,” the Caps’ coach said. “It was one of those things that we thought it was necessary at the time; we add more speed. We’ll miss his leadership, but it gives other people another chance to become more vocal in the dressing room.”

Knuble just wants more chances to score goals. That has been his life in hockey for almost a decade now.

“The fact is, it’s not coming,” he said. “It’s not coming for me; it’s not coming from people I’ve been playing with. Here we are.”

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