Long after the other members of the Washington Capitals had left the ice Tuesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, one player remained - firing puck after puck toward an empty net.
Brooks Laich has one goal in his past 15 games, and he knows it. So there he was, several minutes after his teammates had removed their equipment in the dressing room and headed for the showers, banking on repetition and hard work to regain his scoring touch.
“I think I’ve done other things well. I think I feel like my defensive game is as good as it’s ever been. I’m happy with the way I am skating,” he said. “I just don’t think I am shooting enough and getting around the net enough to score goals.”
Laich had nine goals in his first 21 games and appeared to be barreling toward a career season. He has reached a new mark for goals in each of the past three seasons, collecting eight, then 21, then 23 (and a career-best 53 points) a year ago.
With 26 points in the team’s first 36 games, Laich is on pace for 59. But his recent goal-scoring slump has left him with some work to do if he’s going to approach 30, as it appeared he would earlier this season.
He might have been onto something when he said he isn’t shooting the puck enough. Laich has put only 37 shots on net in the past 15 games after racking up 63 in the first 21 contests.
“If you just look at his career, he’s streaky,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “There’s going to come a time when he’s going to get five goals in five games. He does exactly what you want him to do. He plays anywhere from 16, 17 to 20 minutes [a game], and he’s used in all situations. I know he’s going to score, but that’s not the most paramount thing on my mind when it comes to Brooks.”
One of Laich’s hallmarks during his tenure with the organization has been versatility. Not only is Laich able to play all three forward positions and on defense, but he also has done that in just the past six games.
Laich, who has spent most of his ice time this season at left wing, lined up on the right side Dec. 9 at Buffalo, played the third period on defense Dec. 15 against Colorado and moved to the middle Saturday at Edmonton.
“I am a natural center. I’ve said that all along, but I’ve played wing for most of the past two years,” Laich said. “My first game back at center in Edmonton, I felt very comfortable. I think you handle the puck more, and as a centerman you are more involved in the play. Hopefully, I can create more chances for myself and my linemates.”
Boudreau said the move was due in part to his desire to promote Tomas Fleischmann to the second line. At center on the third line, the Caps have used a rotating cast of characters from Hershey of the American Hockey League, but with other players getting healthy, there is a roster crunch.
This could mean an extended look at center for Laich.
“I think he’s a good centerman,” said Eric Fehr, his linemate in Edmonton and likely again Wednesday against Buffalo at Verizon Center. “He likes to play down low - even when he’s on the wing, he tries to get down low in the defensive zone. He played well down there, and he is great at getting up ice. I thought he was strong.”
The only place left for Laich to try something new is between the pipes. He has joked about being ready to do just that before, and if any skater on this team is going to throw the big pads on in a pinch, he would be a solid bet.
“We’ve got three goalies around here,” Laich said, “so I don’t think something will happen to all of them.”