- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Joel Ward hopped up and down as delicately on the ice as his skates would allow, celebrating his latest postseason spectacle. With one quick jam, he had cracked the New York Islanders’ impenetrable Jaroslav Halak, sending his Washington Capitals teammates into a tizzy as he tiptoed toward the bench.

A day earlier, Ward had spoken about the need to remain in the moment and not let the emotion of Game 7 be too much of a burden. He should know: It was three years ago that he backhanded a rebound into the net in overtime of the deciding game against the Boston Bruins, sending the Capitals into the next round.

And while it was rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov’s third-period dazzler that served as the game-winner, the Capitals wouldn’t have advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals if it wasn’t for old Mr. Reliable himself.

Ward’s goal, at 18:35 of the second period, gave the Capitals their first lead of the game, setting the tone for a 2-1 victory over the Islanders on Monday.

“It seemed like the puck took an hour to cross the line, to be honest with you,” Ward said. “I took a good hard whack on it, but I didn’t see it come out the other side of him, so when it finally did, yeah, I think I wasted a fair bit of energy going into the intermission. I’m just glad it was over with and we scored and we won and we get to move on.”

It was on the heels of his postseason success that Ward first arrived in Washington, having scored a remarkable seven goals and accounted for six assists in 12 playoff games with the Nashville Predators in 2011.

His heroics continued in Boston a year later, when, at 2:57 of overtime, Ward volleyed the rebound of Mike Knuble’s backhand on a two-on-one past goaltender Tim Thomas, propelling the Capitals past the Bruins and setting them up for seven dates with the Rangers.

“He goes to the hard areas when it counts,” said coach Barry Trotz, who, incidentally, was also Ward’s coach during that 2011 playoff run. “That’s what Joel has always done. I had Joel, and Joel made a living with me in Nashville being that trustworthy player in big moments, key moments, just getting it done. He’s had some terrific series in the playoffs for us when I was in Nashville, and he had another one in this series. He was a big body, big force, and talk about big goals at the right times — he has been a part of them.”

It was because of Ward’s size and grit that Trotz moved him to the top line on March 29, when the Capitals hosted the Rangers as they continued their crucial end-of-season playoff push. Ward scored two goals on April 2 at Montreal, then picked up three assists in the playoffs, also making an impact on three other goals with a screen on Halak.

According to the NHL, Ward’s 56.7 even-strength shot-attempt percentage, a measure of puck possession, was the highest on the team during the playoffs. And, at 14.92 per 60 minutes, the Capitals‘ shot differential while Ward was on the ice was by far the highest of any other player.

That’s why it seemed like it was only a matter of time on Monday for Washington to score. The Capitals frequently controlled the puck in the attacking zone for much of the second period, with several near-misses testing Halak. It wasn’t until defenseman Brooks Orpik let go of a shot from the left point that the Capitals finally broke through, with Ward opportunistically stabbing the puck between Halak’s legs.

Ward learned from that winner against Boston the need to control one’s emotions during Game 7. Patience could be a virtue, and as Trotz had been preaching in the days leading up to the game, nothing good would happen if players didn’t remain poised.

“There’s no secret meal or anything,” Ward cracked, referring to his penchant for decisive-game heroics. “If someone told you to go out there and play one last game, give it [your all], you go and give it, so that’s all I tried to do is just give it. Things seem to work out sometimes, and sometimes, they don’t.”

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