- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

NEW YORK

Back in the day, they were all scorers. Long before they became grinders and plumbers for the Washington Capitals, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr and David Steckel were accomplished scorers whom opponents had to account for.

In Wednesday night’s Game 4 against the New York Rangers, that quartet of third- and fourth-line players continued to work in the shadow of their highly skilled teammates who occupy the top six forward positions.

It’s what every team needs, especially in the playoffs and when a team is down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series and some of its best players become no-shows (see Mike Green, unless he’s hiding an injury).

To become only the 21st team in Stanley Cup playoff history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit, the Capitals need Steckel and Gordon to win faceoffs and kill penalties. They need Bradley to get physical if the Rangers take liberties against the stars. And they need Fehr to provide a goal here and there, particularly when it took 12 periods for Ovechkin to score, and Tomas Fleischmann appeared to be skating in circles and was demoted from the second line to the fourth line in the second period.

For the plumbers to be successful in the NHL, it requires an astute understanding of their role, whether it was established in the minors or even earlier.

“Most guys in this league were probably pretty good scorers in junior,” Bradley said Wednesday morning. “But the higher up you get, you have to change your role because it’s the top 700 guys in the world. If you’re going to be one of the top-skilled guys, you better be super-skilled; if not, you better be able to adapt your game and be a good checker and add some other things to your game.”

Before becoming NHL regulars, the role players were star players.

Fehr scored 50 and 59 goals his last two years with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Gordon posted 33 goals and 48 assists in his final season with the Red Deer Rebels. And Bradley was a 33-goal scorer for the Kingston Frontenacs in 1997-98.

Steckel, meanwhile, had two 17-goal seasons at Ohio State and scored 30 goals for Hershey two years ago.

They scored 30 goals this season for the Caps in a total of 281 combined appearances.

“Going in, your goal is to never play fourth-line center,” Gordon said. “But that’s the way it is. It’s a hard league. To be a top-six or top-nine forward, you have to produce and be pretty skilled. I’ve found my niche, I guess. I just try to be good at what I do.”

Gordon and Steckel said they tried to be two-way players before turning pro so the adjustment wouldn’t be as severe and they could get to the NHL faster.

“I always wanted to play a two-way game,” Gordon said. “I was always coached [that] if you can be good defensively, I’d have a better chance of playing instead of if I was all offense. Defense was stressed. That’s what I do on this team, and that’s what I have to continue to keep doing.”

At Ohio State, Steckel took it one step further. On a team with future NHL players R.J. Umberger and Ryan Kesler, Steckel played a second-line role with an eye on the future.

“Right after college, I knew teams weren’t interested in having me as a No. 1 or No. 2 center,” he said. “I knew it would as a third- or fourth-line center, but that’s the mentality I had in college. It just so happened I was putting up points and used in a different role.

“I knew going into the pros I would be more of a grinder and energy-line player.”

The Rangers came out with the energy in Game 4, and even though they were widely outshot, they scored twice in the first two periods and then leaned on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the MVP of the series so far.

The Caps won two straight over Philadelphia last year before losing Game 7 in overtime. To rebound this year, coach Bruce Boudreau should put Brooks Laich on the first power play unit to set up shop in front of Lundqvist and, if he really wants to be radical, give defenseman Brian Pothier more time at the point because Green’s struggles have reached four games.

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