A scan of the Capitals’ statistics through 19 games shows most of the usual suspects in the expected places.
There’s Alex Ovechkin on top with goals with 14. The double-digit assist guys are Nicklas Backstrom (15), Marcus Johansson (14), Mike Green (11) and Mikhail Grabovski (11). Goalies Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have goals-against averages under 3 and save percentages above the .910 mark.
The team’s second-best goal scorer to this point is — Joel Ward?
Yes, the normalcy ends there, at least based on what’s been on display the past couple of seasons. Ward, who had six goals in 73 games two seasons ago and eight in 39 last season, has nine in 19 thus far.
“I play against a lot of guys. Some guys you don’t remember. Him I remember,” said Grabovski, who joined the Caps as a free agent from the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason. “He’s very skilled, great hands. He can score goals. Now that we play together, I feel he can make any play we need.”
Ward’s goal-scoring isn’t as big a surprise if you go back to the three seasons he spent with Nashville before joining the Caps. He had at least 10 in all three seasons, with a high of 17 in 2008-09. He’s on pace for about 36 this season if he can manage to continue at his current rate.
The difference? It’s sort of a chicken-egg argument, depending on the point of view. Ward said he’s getting more opportunities, which has led to more chances to score. Caps coach Adam Oates said Ward has earned those opportunities and has taken advantage of his chances to score.
“If you go to the right places and do the right things, good things happen for you,” Oates said.
Oates is using Ward on a regular shift on the third line with Grabovski at center and Jason Chimera on the other wing. He’s also using Ward regularly on the power play and penalty kill. Ward has three power-play goals, two more than he had the previous two seasons. He has the team’s only short-handed goal, matching his total from the past two seasons.
“I haven’t really changed anything,” Ward said. “When you get an opportunity to play, you make the most of it. I think the times I’ve had opportunities, I’ve done very well with it.
“When you’re given the opportunity to play on the power play, the penalty kill, you get on the ice more, you’ve got your confidence up a little more. It’s like any sport. The more reps you get in, the more practice you get, the more you’re going to have good results.”
Ward and Chimera started the season with Eric Fehr as their center. When Oates made a few adjustments throughout the lineup, he moved Grabovski to third-line center and the results have been impressive. You can make a case that it has been the team’s best line. It is at least in the conversation with the top line. Grabovski has six goals to go with his 11 assists. That puts him four assists ahead and only three goals behind his totals last season in Toronto. Chimera has five goals and eight assists. He had three goals and 11 assists last season.
“[Ward] is playing great hockey, the whole line is,” Oates said. “They’re a great foundation for us in certain situations like after a goal, after a power play, after a penalty kill. It’s a great feeling knowing you can put that line out and count on them against any one of the three lines the other team puts out in terms of offense.
“They’re reliable, they eat the clock up, they’re threatening and they wear teams out.”
Ward thinks things can get even better with his line.
“We’ve done a lot of good things, for sure,” he said. “We’re still learning a little bit more, chemistry and communication on the ice. I think we can make things easier for ourselves if we communicate a litlte more. We’re trying to get better at that.”