- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A red sweater was missing from Jason Chimera’s shoulders early last December as he sat in the dressing room at Verizon Center while his teammates were on the ice.

Chimera had struggled for three months to adapt to the specifics of Barry Trotz’s new system, carving a chasm between the veteran winger and the Washington Capitals’ new coach. Trotz responded by holding Chimera out that night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, handing him the first of five scratches he’d receive over the course of the season.

A year later, Chimera has offset what may have been his worst start to a season with arguably what has been his best. After scoring in each of the Capitals’ last two games, his sixth and seventh goals of the season, the 36-year-old is on pace to finish with an eye-opening 25 goals. That figure, augmented by his first real power-play minutes in Washington, would easily set a career high.

His rapport with Trotz repaired, and his confidence cruising, one of the Capitals’ most-liked teammates is a significant part of the reason why Washington, at 17-5-1, is off to its best start in franchise history.

“Hockey is a game of momentum,” right wing Tom Wilson said, “and he’s really hot right now.”

Upon arriving in Washington, Trotz fingered Chimera as someone who could hold a leadership role on the team. His age, experience and consistency qualified him for that responsibility, but it was how easily Chimera could navigate the dressing room, endearing himself to teammates, that caught the coach’s eye.

Bogged down by an early slump — he had two goals and four assists over his first 28 games — Chimera was scratched from the lineup on Dec. 13, his first time sitting while healthy in nearly two seasons. The situation only roiled Chimera, but he gradually started to buy in. During Washington’s playoff run last season, few players were more consistent than Chimera, who had three goals and four assists during over the two seven-game series.

“You go through so many highs and lows in your career, and last year, it was kind of a down year for me,” Chimera said. “I mean, you kind of want to get back on the horse. Always, playoffs is a new system, a new game, and [if] you end up on a good note, you end up feeling good about yourself.”

That satisfaction carried through the summer, Chimera said, with a general pleasantry and optimism accompanying his offseason workouts. It again manifested itself in the Capitals’ opener, when Chimera had a goal and an assist in the 5-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 10.

Early last month, as Trotz sought a way to boost the Capitals’ sagging power play, he moved center Evgeny Kuznetsov down to the second unit and added Chimera as that group’s net-front presence. The switch paid off almost immediately, with Chimera scoring two power-play goals in the second period on Nov. 12 against the Philadelphia Flyers — his first in almost two years, and the first time he had more than one in a game in his career.

“For me, it’s not too different: Just get in front of the net and create some havoc,” Chimera said. “When you have the puck, make some good plays. Kuzy’s kind of the backbone, so that helps out, but it’s definitely nice to produce and help out, for sure.”

Chimera added another power-play goal on Friday in the Capitals’ victory over the Lightning, and he had a goal and an assist again on Saturday in a road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals enter Thursday’s game at the Montreal Canadiens with not just a five-game winning streak, but with Chimera tallying 10 points in his last nine games.

“He has a good game [or] bad game, what have you, he usually, generally, is a contributor, and if he’s not contributing offensively, he’s contributing on the penalty kill or defensively,” Trotz said. “His discipline that he’s showing, his leadership that he’s showing, it’s much more where it should be than I thought it was at times last year, and that shows in his production and his ice time and all that.”

Chimera scored 20 goals in 2011-12 and had 42 points in 2013-14. Those were career highs in his respective categories, and they were reached during years in which he signed new contracts.

The most recent of those two extensions is set to expire after this season, but Chimera doesn’t have his mind on retirement just yet. He said he hopes to reach two milestones in Washington: Winning the Stanley Cup and playing in 1,000 games, of which he’s 108 games shy.

“I don’t want to stop playing,” Chimera said. “I want to play forever. I feel like I’ve got a lot of legs left under me. You want to just keep playing, keep proving you can do it. I know I can score goals. I know I can make plays. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

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