- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Washington Capitals signed Joel Ward for his playoff reputation, and last season he showed them why by playing the role of the Game 7 hero. This year he’s just happy to be in the lineup.

Ward returned for Game 1 of the Caps’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers after missing the final nine regular-season games with a bruised left knee.

“It means a lot,” right wing Troy Brouwer said of having Ward back. “He had a good series last year, a good playoffs last year, a big goal to win the Boston series. When he was in Nashville, he had a lot of timely goals, key goals.”

Ward scored the overtime winner to advance past the Bruins but also took an ill-timed four-minute high-sticking penalty in Game 5 against the Rangers a round later that cost the Caps dearly. But his all-around game aside from goals is also well-suited to this time of year.

“He’s a clutch guy,” Brouwer said. “He’s that guy that pressure and the intensity of playoffs don’t really faze him.”

The 32-year-old has 10 goals and 12 assists in his first 32 career Stanley Cup playoff games with the Nashville Predators and the Caps.

“I just have fun with it,” Ward said. “Yes, it’s a very important game, but you have to kind of stay in that moment. You’ve got to be patient and just believe in your abilities and you’ll get your chance to do something, and hopefully you capitalize when you do get those chances. I think it’s basically just going out there and having fun. You can’t stress too much that it’s a do- or end-all, so to speak.”

Ward went back in on the Caps’ fourth line alongside left wing Matt Hendricks and center Jay Beagle, replacing enforcer Aaron Volpatti and giving that group a different look.

“Having Joel back on the right side [gives] us a little more offense through the lineup,” Hendricks said. “His ability to keep the cycles alive, keep control of the puck in the offensive zone, he’s very good at that.”

Ward enjoyed a return to normalcy this season, used on the power play and penalty kill much more under Adam Oates than Dale Hunter. He finished the regular season with eight goals and 12 assists in 39 games.

“He’s been one of our better players all year long,” Oates said. “We missed him. We’re glad he’s healthy and can play.”

Eric Fehr replaced Ward on the power play when the 6-foot-1, 226-pound right wing took a slap shot to the left knee from Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo on April 7. But Ward still has value elsewhere.

“He’s been able to contribute as much as possible,” Brouwer said. “On the PK, he’s blocking shots, he’s doing the right things, he’s tough to play against, he battles hard. He’s one of those guys that he’s tough. He’s got that long stick on the PK that is no fun to play against.”

Ward makes the Caps tougher to play against because he’s physical off the puck and strong when he has it in the offensive zone. His teammates were able to keep rolling toward the playoffs without him, but now that it’s the postseason, Ward is glad to be healthy.

Caps-Rangers being the final series to start this postseason helped, too.

“Every day I’ve felt better,” Ward said. “Anytime you get an opportunity to get a couple more days of rest, you take advantage of it, so it’s actually been pretty helpful.”

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