Joel Ward, Game 5 and the New York Rangers. That combination, before Friday night, was synonymous with missed opportunity and disappointment for the Washington Capitals.
This year’s script was different, though. Friday night’s had a happy ending. As Ward glided toward his teammates to celebrate the Caps’ 2-1 overtime victory at Verizon Center, he was redeemed.
Ward’s game-tying power-play goal in the second period changed the complexion of Game 5 and this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. His contributions are a main reason why the Caps could eliminate the Rangers on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Last season, Ward’s high sticking double-minor with 22 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 5 against the Rangers led to New York’s tying goal and the decisive goal in an eventual overtime Caps defeat. That was prologue to one of the finer performances of Washington’s victory Friday.
“Wardo’s a horse,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “He’s a playoff performer. I think that’s the main reason why we got him here.”
That was his reputation when Washington signed him as a free agent in July 2011, two head coaches ago. Before his gaffe in Game 5 of the conference semifinals last May, he fortified his postseason resume by scoring the overtime winner in Game 7 of the conference quarters against Boston.
That positive postseason reputation is intact this spring. His gritty work along the boards and opportunistic play in the offensive zone helped generate scoring chances Friday, in addition to his goal.
“It’s no secret—I’m not Ovi out there,” Ward said. “I’ve got to play to my strengths. I’m a bigger body; just try to get pucks down low and try to create some plays for my [linemates].”
Ward almost tied the game midway through the first period by getting on the back end of a cross-crease redirection of the puck by Jason Chimera. However, Rangers defenseman John Moore impacted Ward’s stick and prevented a clean shot.
That was one of Washington’s best scoring opportunities in a first period the Rangers controlled. The Capitals’ puckhandling problems carried over from Game 4, and they played disjointedly.
Washington needed to regain a foothold, and Ward came through 7 minutes, 44 seconds into the second period.
Coach Adam Oates sent Ward out for the power play after New York’s Brian Boyle was called for slashing. Ward actually lost the faceoff in the Rangers’ zone, but when New York turned the puck over, he positioned himself in the slot.
Nicklas Backstrom passed the puck to Marcus Johansson below the goal line. Johansson one-timed the pass to Ward in the slot, and Ward slapped it past goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s stick side.
“I just tried to face [Johansson], just as an option for him,” Ward said. “He fed it to me, and I was open in the slot and I just took a crack at it.”
The game changed from that point. The Capitals, outshot 10-8 in the first period, finished with a 35-25 advantage.
But that’s what the Capitals expect from Ward. Even Oates, who has coached Ward for only five playoff games, knows it.
“Playoff hockey, really, the game slows down a little bit, generally,” Oates said. “You have to be good along the wall. Buildings get hot. Guys are a little bit more sure of their plays. They make safer plays. So the puck goes around the boards more often.
“Joel is a big guy. His skill set fits right into that. Right now our right side is very solid over there with four big guys who can pound it down the boards. It’s a big part of the game.”
Oates moved him from the fourth line to the third for Game 5 as part of the shuffling that resulted from Martin Erat’s apparent left wrist or forearm injury in Game 4. Mathieu Perreault, Chimera and Ward played about 17 minutes and combined for seven shots.
“This is how you get through in the playoffs,” Perreault said. “It’s through your whole lineup.”
Ward kept that in mind as he worked back from a bruised left knee that kept him out of the final nine games of the regular season. This is his time.
“Everyone’s goal as a kid is to raise the Stanley Cup,” Ward said. “It’s playoff time. That’s the best part about hockey.”
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