The things a man must do to hold down a job in the National Hockey League - things that leave him with a six-stitch gash over his eye or a broken jaw held together by metal plates. Everybody, after all, can’t be Alex Ovechkin. Somebody has to be Matt Bradley and Quintin Laing.
Too bad Halloween has come and gone. Bradley, the Capitals’ combative right winger, wouldn’t have needed a mask Wednesday after his slugfest the night before with Rangers ruffian Aaron Voros. He could have gone trick-or-treating as Chuck Wepner, the erstwhile heavyweight and celebrated “Bayonne Bleeder.” The left side of his face - the one corresponding to Voros’ right fist - was particularly scary, a gruesome collection of stitches, bruises and lumps of varying altitudes.
But it was all good because the Bradley-Voros battle had started the first-place Caps on their way to a 4-2 win in New York. And besides, he came out of the game in better shape than Laing, who suffered the aforementioned jaw injury after going down - as Crazy Quintin will - to block a Michal Rozsival slapper.
Once upon a time, Bradley was a hotshot junior hockey player, good for 25 or 30 goals a season. Of course, “in junior,” he said, “I think we were all probably one of the top guys on our team.” Anyway, this spared him from a lot of the dirty work he’s doing now. As he climbed the ladder, though, he came to realize that “to be a top-two-line guy in this league, to be a point-scorer, you’d better be very skilled. And if you’re not, you’ve gotta figure out what other things you can do, whether that’s being good defensively or playing physically and getting in fights at times. It’s just a matter of adapting.”
Yup, survival of the fittest - in a league that’s ruthlessly Darwinian. Adjust or… sell cars. So Bradley became a scrapper, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guardian of the Mike Greens of the world. Indeed, it was Green who Bradley defended in October after the defenseman was run over by Flyers bully Ian Laperriere. Fortunately for the Capitals’ insurance carrier - not to mention Matt’s rugged good looks - the brief skirmish was mostly a wrestling match.
“You want to do as many things as you can to make you as valuable a player as possible,” Bradley said. “Like Lainger blocking shots the way he does - that’s a huge asset. Lots of guys aren’t willing to do that kind of thing. That might give you an edge when you’re being compared to someone else. It might be the difference between playing and not playing.”
There are good fights and not-so-good fights. It’s mostly a matter of timing. Bradley’s decision to square off with Voros - the third time they’ve exchanged blows on the ice going back to the latter’s days in Minnesota - was a good fight by hockey standards. The Caps were down 1-0 midway through the first period (after getting drilled by New Jersey three nights earlier) and, well, Matt thought his teammates needed a little pick-me-up.
His self-sacrifice had the desired effect: Less than five minutes later, Ovechkin, just off the injured list, scored on the power play to tie it. Then Bradley returned, all bandaged up, and got the game-winner on a breakaway late in the third.
“There are two reasons you fight,” Bruce Boudreau said. “One is for yourself, and two is for the team. But good fighting is when you’re doing it for the team. When you’re frustrated and you just go pick a fight - or a guy gets a good hit on you and you take a run at him and drop your gloves and get the instigator [penalty] and put your team shorthanded - I don’t think that’s good fighting. But what Matt did is … [what] we needed. He almost knocked him out, you know.”
He certainly did. Voros’ knees buckled, and he looked like he might drop. As Joe Beninati, briefly morphing into Jim Lampley, described it on Versus, “… and Bradley caught him with a straight right!”
By the time the officials pulled them apart, Bradley looked like one of the victims in a slasher movie. There was blood coursing down his face, blood polka-dotting his jersey. Not to worry, though. There’s plenty more where that came from. There had better be, too, when you’ve had more fights in your career (59, according to the wonderful Web site hockeyfights.com) than goals (46).
“A lot of times,” Brooks Laich said, a fight has “a bigger effect than some people understand. It can change the momentum of the game. You’re sitting on the bench saying, ‘Look. This guy’s here to play tonight. We have to win the game for him.’ When a guy does that… it’s not an easy thing to do. You see his face [afterward]. Nobody wants to do that. That’s not fun. What you want to do is score goals. But he does that - and then gets rewarded late in the game with a game-winning goal. Players like that, they really help you out.”
Rest assured, Bradley will continue in this vein - if you’ll pardon the expression - especially now that Donald Brashear, the club’s previous policeman, has taken his Designated Heavy act to the Rangers. When you’re determined to be a professional hockey player, when you eat, sleep and bleed the sport, you do what you’ve gotta do.