Cross Checks: Joel Ward


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- George McPhee sat back after yet another playoff heartbreaker this past spring and thought about the next step.

What the Washington Capitals GM came up with was surrounding his talented core with more character and grit, especially up front.

Enter forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern.

"We thought that it was a dynamic our team could use, really well-rounded, two-way players, but experienced, character guys," McPhee told ESPN.com on Monday night. "The longer you're in the business, the more you realize that the talent is one thing, but the character and those intangibles that are so important are the things that really win the games for you late in the season and in the playoffs."

The idea was to solidify the bottom-nine forward group behind the star-studded pairing of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Two games hardly make for enough evidence -- talk to us in the spring -- but the early results have been promising when it comes to the supporting cast.

Brouwer, playing on the second line, scored his first goal with the Capitals on Monday night, third-liner Ward posted an assist and fourth-line center Halpern added a helper, as well.

On a night when Ovechkin's top line was shut down in a wild 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay, Washington's bottom-nine forward group scored all five goals in regulation, led by Jason Chimera's two goals off the third line and capped by a shootout winner from fourth-line winger Matt Hendricks (Alexander Semin also scored in the shootout).

"We're pretty deep," said Chimera, who was outstanding in collecting career goals 100 and 101. "We've got a lot of guys that can play hockey. All our lines can get it done."

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Geoff Burke/US PresswireDespite two too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties, the Capitals rallied to beat the Lightning 6-5 in a shootout Monday night.

And that's the idea. If Semin decides to disappear in the spring, the Caps' hope is that they have a bottom-six group that can answer the bell. Brooks Laich is centering a third line between Ward and Chimera, a unit that has already produced four goals in two games. On Monday night, Laich's line was matched up against Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos and held them both off the score sheet while inflicting its own offensive damage.

"They [Laich, Ward and Chimera] were totally the better line in that matchup," said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau.

Halpern, meanwhile, centered the fourth line between Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault. Halpern, who played solid minutes for Montreal last season, is a luxury to have on your fourth line. It's called depth.

"The bottom-six forwards in the two games, I think, have been the key," Boudreau said. "Eventually, the top six are going to start doing what they're supposed to be doing. Right now, it's the bottom six."

Ovechkin has one assist in his two opening games. He showed flashes of his brilliant self Monday night, although he was limited to three shots while posting a minus-2 rating.

"I think he's got a long way to go to get to where he wants to be, to be as good as he should be," Boudreau said matter-of-factly. "He's our No. 1 player, but he can be better. There's no doubt about it."

Tomas Vokoun needs to be better, too. No one has to tell the veteran Czech netminder that after he was lit up for five goals on 28 shots in his first start of the season. The performance came a couple of days after Vokoun publicly expressed his disappointment in not starting Game No. 1 (Michal Neuvirth got the nod).

This, along with some shoddy team defense, was the disappointing part of the night for the Caps. They've got 80 more games to tighten things up before it's go time, and the look on Boudreau's face after the game suggested it will indeed be a priority. He's 2-0-0 on the season, but far from satisfied.

To his credit, meanwhile, Vokoun didn't pull any punches with his own play Monday night, and that's a sure way to win the respect of your new teammates.

"They literally won today without goaltending," Vokoun said of his teammates. "What can I say? The guys played hard. It was a great game from our side and it should've been 5-2 at the worst. ... It was just an ugly, ugly, ugly game for me."

When Brett Clark's goal made it 5-4 for the visitors 12:56 into the third period, Vokoun got a Bronx cheer from the Verizon Center faithful when he stopped the next shot on the next shift. Ouch.

"It's the first game and you want to leave a good impression with the fans and everything," said Vokoun. "I can't tell you the last time I remember having as bad a game as tonight. But we won the game, certainly no thanks to me."

Those jeers turned to cheers when Vokoun stopped five shots in overtime as the Lighting pressed on a power play, and also blanked Tampa in the shootout.

"If you're trying to look at the big picture, it takes a guy with a lot of mental toughness to play like that and then in overtime when we're down 4-on-3 to make those three or four huge saves," said Boudreau. "You touch the puck and the crowd is booing you, it's your first game in there and you want to make an impression. ... And he comes up and makes those big saves and makes the saves in the shootout. It told me a lot about his character. It ends up being a positive thing even if he didn't have a positive game."

Bolts let down

The Lightning are 1-1-1 on the season after dropping their second straight game.

"I thought we were awful against Boston [on Saturday]," Tampa winger Nate Thompson, who tied the score at 7:42 into the third period, said after the game. "I thought tonight we really bounced back, guys really stepped up. It wasn't a matter of us not working hard today. We worked hard, we just didn't work smart."

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