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Merit matters for Capitals as Adam Oates keeps shuffling

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2013

The beneficiary of perfect, tic-tac-toe passing from Alex Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to him, Matt Hendricks just had to make sure he didn't miss the net.

But it wasn't because of a long shift and it wasn't by accident that Hendricks found himself on the ice with the cornerstones of the Washington Capitals' franchise.

"That was called," Hendricks said. "Adam called for that."

Call that a smart hunch by coach Adam Oates that resulted in a Hendricks goal, but it's not an isolated incident. Oates made it well-known to his players when he arrived that the Caps were a team of opportunity.

"He's an honest coach. He said that from Day One that hard work's going to pay off around here," Hendricks said. "Do the systems correctly, work hard at what you do and you'll be rewarded."

Spots in the lineup aren't etched in stone. Far from it.

That's how Hendricks was able to earn a spot on the second line for Thursday night's game against the Montreal Canadiens. That's how Wojtek Wolski replaced Marcus Johansson on the top line. And that's how Mathieu Perreault has a chance to thrive even after he expressed unhappiness over a lack of ice time.

Oates knows Ovechkin is a first-line talent and that Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro will be his top two centers when they're both healthy. So he's not going to shake up the lineup just for the sake of it.

But the first-year NHL head coach has shown early on that he fosters competition by the way he rewards players based on performance.

"Every player should want that," he said. "Every player should want to improve and want more minutes. That's your job."

Oates said any professional athlete should want that, "always want a little more."

Hendricks is the best example. In Tuesday night's loss to the Winnipeg Jets, not only did Hendricks score a goal, he fought twice to try to fire up the Verizon Center crowd and his teammates.

Getting bumped up to the second line shortly after that will likely only fire Hendricks up more. The 30-year-old grinder can't help but love the competition.

"I think it's important. I think it's important because that's what we work for, that's what players want," he said. "You're competitive against your opponents every day, but you're competitive in your own right as well where you want to perform, you want to get more ice time, more opportunity."

Wolski, who earned a shot playing on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, signed in Washington because of opportunity. The left wing made $4 million last season; his pro-rated salary for 2013 is $600,000.

It didn't take long for Wolski to make an impact; he scored in his Caps debut Saturday and impressed coaches and teammates.

"He's a skilled guy and he's kind of sneaky out there," Backstrom said. "He's a good player to hold the puck."

Perreault showed he could play well when given the opportunity during part of Backstrom's 40-game concussion absence last season. He finished with 16 goals, tied for fifth on the team with Brooks Laich.

"I thought I had a decent year last year with numbers and stuff," Perreault said. "I want to show [Oates] what I can do but I've got to get a little bit more minutes to show what I can do."

Oates said he'll try to find more minutes for Perreault, and, really anyone who earns it. Hendricks began the season on the fourth line alongside Perreault, so his promotion was further evidence that upward mobility is available.

Some players don't care about that.

"To be honest with you, I'm not really worried about that. I want to start winning hockey games," center Jay Beagle said. "If you could you would want to play the whole game just because I love to play. I'm never thinking about, 'Oh, I want to move up in the lines' or something like that. I just go out there and I play my game and if I get more ice I'll work my butt off to try to win the hockey game."

But the idea is that success will come from guys earning their spots.

"That's the best thing about hockey, is that you play for each other, but you push each other every day as well," Hendricks said.

And the added benefit of lineup fluidity is that, over the course of the regular season and playoffs, guys will get used to playing with each other.

"It doesn't really matter who I play with," Ribeiro said. "I don't really care about that. It's the way they play. If they play the right way, then it should be easy to play with anyone if everyone does the right thing."

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