When the Washington Capitals talk about leadership, it goes far beyond Alex Ovechkin and a group that includes variable alternate captains Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich. Discussing vocal leaders, everyone to a man brought up Matt Hendricks.
His pregame ritual might have a lot to do with that.
"He always goes around the room at the beginning of the game, calling out guys' names, asking them what's going on, what they're going to do out there," Brouwer said. "He's a guy that guys always look towards to get the team riled up and ready to go, and he's a guy that works hard and he knows that he has to work."
Under coach Dale Hunter, that has meant an increased role in shutdown situations, on faceoffs and on the penalty kill. The tighter the game the more ice time Hendricks gets, including more than 32 minutes in the Caps' 2-1 triple-overtime loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal.
"Hendy's played great," Laich said. "He's expanded his role, same as Jay [Beagle] has, too: faceoffs, assignments, penalty killing, checking, a goal in Game 7 [against Boston]. You need those guys. You need those guys if you're going to win."
Hunter often refers to bottom-six forwards as "foot soldiers." Hendricks, who comes from a military family, fits that bill perfectly, as he approaches every game with the same level of intensity and work ethic.
Hendricks enjoys long shifts on the penalty kill, laying down in front of a slap shot and spending quality time wearing down opposing teams' best players.
"Anything I can do to help the team, personally it's something that you work for your whole career, to get more opportunity, to be a shut-down guy," he said. "That's been my goal throughout my career to be that guy that gets more minutes, gets more ice time and faceoff opportunities."
But to get those opportunities, Hendricks has had to prove he's good at doing all that. During these playoffs, he has done that at seemingly every turn; he won 14 straight faceoffs during a stretch through all of Game 4 and some of Game 5.
"Definitely, he's been bearing down on the draws, and that's why he gets to take more and play more, and his penalty killing's been good," Hunter said. "He's been working his tail off out there."
Hendricks knows Hunter rewards work and guys who "pay the price" by blocking shots and enduring hard minutes.
"I'm happy, and hopefully I can do more to help the team," Hendricks said.
That's the kind of attitude the Caps have come to expect from the 30-year-old forward. Defenseman Karl Alzner was complimentary in comparing Hendricks to Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
"He's pretty much an identical player to Callahan. He could be our captain. He could be one of those guys. He's a guy that goes out, he fights if he has to, he blocks all the shots, he takes faceoffs," Alzner said. "It's just a guy that has no fear and just goes out and plays. It's very nice to see, and it's nice to see that people recognize that."
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