- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | When Chris Clark decided to have wrist surgery last month, it became evident that Eric Fehr was about to have another chance to make good on the promise he has oozed since being drafted some 5 1/2 years ago.

No more injuries, no more adjustments to a new level of play, no more inconsistent playing time - no more excuses. His coach wanted him to “seize the moment” and earn his place in the lineup on a consistent basis.

In the past six games, the Washington Capitals forward has begun to play like that big kid from western Canada with a salivating combination of size and skill that helped make him a first-round pick in the 2003 draft, one of the deepest in league history.

“Yeah, but don’t tell him - let’s just let him keep going and play the way he’s playing,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “[Six] games is still a short period of time. I love what he’s doing and his competition [level] - don’t get me wrong - but we’ve got 26 or 27 games left, and I think that would be a better barometer after 30 games of playing regularly.”

Fehr has four goals and three assists in the past six contests. He didn’t score against Detroit in the first game of the span but helped create about a half-dozen scoring chances.

Since then, Fehr has potted a goal in every game but one and has a pair of two-point efforts. At 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Fehr just might be blossoming into a gritty power forward who could be a perfect long-term complement to the high-flying forwards on the Caps’ top two lines.

“I think I am making strides to prove I can play at this level, but in my mind I’ve always thought I could play here,” Fehr said. “I haven’t quite been able to make that next step to score those goals. I’ve felt great with the puck, but I haven’t been confident about putting it in the net. If I can do that, then I can definitely show I can be a good player in the league.”

Still only 23, Fehr has struggled while trying to establish himself at the NHL level. People have been waiting for years for him to help the Caps after he posted back-to-back 50 goal seasons in the Western Hockey League.

This season began as his first with a clean bill of health and a full offseason to prepare in several years after a prolonged battle with an injury to his lower back and hip. But on a team with 14 forwards, Fehr was not a consistent presence in Boudreau’s lineup. There were flashes of his talent but often no reward on the scoresheet.

“There were so many games where I went home thinking, ‘I should have scored three goals tonight,’ ” Fehr said. “I was really getting disappointed about it. I’ve talked to [assistant coach] Dean [Evason] and Bruce [Boudreau] about it, and they both told me to shoot to score in practice and that will carry on into the game. If you shoot enough pucks, eventually they are going to go in.”

Fehr has played 82 NHL games, the equivalent of a full NHL season. His numbers (10 goals, 25 points, plus-13) may seem modest, but Fehr has been better through 82 NHL games than both Brooks Laich (seven goals, 22 points, minus-12) and Tomas Fleischmann (nine goals, 23 points, minus-18).

Both of those players were 23 when they hit the 82-game mark, and both have developed into quality NHL forwards since.

“Obviously the NHL is different, but I think he can be a great offensive player,” center David Steckel said. “He gets the puck down low, and he protects it well. He’s got a great shot. When he moves his feet and plays hard, he creates chances, not only for himself but for the people on his line. When he’s in the game, he’s being physical and knocking guys off the puck; I think he just needs to play that way all the time.”

Fehr’s superior plus-minus has something to do with the vast improvement of the team from a few years ago, when Laich and Fleischmann broke into the league. But it also has something to do with Fehr’s stick work when he doesn’t have the puck. He isn’t blessed with great straight-line speed, but Fehr has proved to be a tricky player to handle for opposing players with the puck. He has a deft ability to pick off passes and lift sticks to snatch the puck away.

Takeaways and giveaways are not the most meticulously kept statistics in the NHL, but Fehr is third on the team in takeaways per game. The term “hockey sense” is tossed around a lot to describe intangible talents for players, and Fehr’s sneaky stick is part of his overall package of skills.

“I’ve always prided myself on reading the play really well and knowing what the other defenseman is going to do or where the other players are going around the ice,” Fehr said. “It definitely helps to have a long reach, and maybe it is just the fact that I like to read the play and try to cheat to turn the puck over and go on offense.”

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