RALEIGH, N.C. — In the rotation of lines, the trio of Matt Hendricks, Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble stepped onto the ice third Friday night, leading Hendricks to question the label of being the “fourth line.” Then, Jason Chimera piped up as he was walking by.
“You guys played like you were the first line,” Chimera said.
That’s more than just a witty joke from a veteran, as Hendricks, Halpern and Knuble stepped up and played like top-line forwards — even as the stars struggled — to power a 5-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at RBC Center.
Hendricks, Halpern and Knuble only accounted for one official goal — Halpern’s first of the season — but they were vital in keeping the Capitals in the game when things weren’t exactly going swimmingly.
“We know it’s a conference game and the games are really important for us, and I think everybody play [their] A-game tonight,” defenseman Roman Hamrlik said. “We give [goaltender Michal Neuvirth] some confidence, I think, in the second period and as the game went on we played better and better.”
It all started with some energy shifts from the so-called fourth line of 30-something grinders. With the Caps trailing 1-0 early on after a tip-in goal by Carolina’s Anthony Stewart, Hendricks and Co. knew they had to do something.
“We were trying to just be upbeat on the bench, keep talking, keep trying to get the guys into it and just try to do everything we could to steal the momentum back,” he said. “Carolina’s a good team; they came out and they bit into us early. They were all over us and we got our composure back, we scored that one there and things kind of turned for us.”
The goal was a diving poke by Halpern, and it really did change the entire game. Just 1:09 later, Troy Brouwer scored on a nifty pass from Marcus Johansson, and the Caps built on that lead with goals by John Carlson, Cody Eakin (his first in the NHL) and Nicklas Backstrom.
That was all set up by some hard-working shifts from a hard-working group of vets.
“We were able to lean on them a little bit in their end. Hendy’s so good at getting on pucks and not just getting on them but holding onto it and Knubs is able to create offense off of being pinned against the boards and creating cycles that way,” Halpern said. “Once we got a little comfortable, it was fun to play.”
And, eventually fun to watch. While the Caps and Hurricanes traded sloppy play, Neuvirth made 24 saves to keep it from really getting nerve-wracking and the defense clamped down to finish off a ninth victory in 11 games.
“We felt like we played with lots of confidence and that was the biggest difference, and everybody was doing our job,” Hamrlik said. “The way we played tonight, I think we can surprise lots of teams and we can win more games.”