NEW YORK — Joel Ward sat at his locker in an apparent daze. Reporters’ questions long over, Ward stared off into the distance. He didn’t acknowledge teammate Dennis Wideman calling his name from across the somber locker room.
“Wardo,” Wideman said to no reply. “Wardo,” he said again. Wideman walked over to Ward and got a couple of head nods as an answer. As Ward removed his jock strap just minutes after his penalty led to two goals and a crushing 3-2 overtime loss for the Washington Capitals, Wideman patted him on the butt and left.
There was no consoling Ward, whose high-sticking penalty with 21.3 seconds left paved the way for two New York Rangers goals in Game 5, one with 6.6 seconds left to tie it and then one just 1:35 into overtime to put the Caps on the brink of elimination.
“It’s definitely a letdown. I definitely let the squad down,” Ward said. “I cost us the game with a terrible play.”
Players and coach Dale Hunter were quick to take the blame off Ward’s shoulders after his stick came up high on Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin to cause the penalty.
“No one feels lower than him right now, but it’s not his fault,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “It’s a tough break.”
Hockey locker rooms aren’t usually a place for quiet reflection after games. Get out of wet equipment, shower and get dressed. Talk to reporters, something Ward did without hesitation – he was waiting at his locker when the room opened.
Karl Alzner and everyone could empathize with Ward.
“You never mean to high-stick a guy. It just happens. There’s nothing you can say. It’s just frustrating for him, I’m sure, more than anybody. It’s just too bad,” Alzner said. “We all know. Everyone’s taken a penalty and something’s bad happened. There’s nothing he needs to say.”
Ward sat in the penalty box in the final seconds of regulation and overtime just “maybe hoping for another chance,” he said. “There’s not much you can do in there.”
While Ward was trapped in the box and his own worries, Brad Richards tied the score with 6.6 seconds left, just moments after it looked like Braden Holtby had the puck covered. He didn’t.
“That’s what you call the breaks in a game,” coach Dale Hunter said.
With Madison Square Garden still buzzing, it took one more bad break to go against the Caps and put them just one loss from elimination in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. That happened when Marc Staal’s shot from the point deflected off Brooks Laich and past Holtby.
“I didn’t see a thing,” Holtby admitted.
The overtime hero of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins, Ward had the unenviable skate from the penalty box to the losing dressing room.
“It’s a game of inches. It happens pretty quick. We were a few seconds [away from] winning and it turned into an overtime and then a loss just like that,” Ward said. “It’s tough to be in that position when you’re letting the team down.”