By Scott Lowe
Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau gave the world a heads up about Matt Hendricks at training camp on Tuesday, but his comments didn’t get much play in the media, and apparently the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t get the hint.
When asked if anyone had surprised him at camp without getting much attention, Boudreau replied, “I really love the way Matt Hendricks plays. I’ve been a big fan of his for about the last five years. He played on a team in Colorado that nobody thought would go anywhere and they ended up with 100 points and in the playoffs. He’s come in here to earn a spot on the team, and so far he’s pushing guys. He’s done a great job.”
Those comments came before Wednesday’s effort by the left winger, who describes his game as adding some “sandpaper” to the Caps’ lineup. If Boudreau loved Hendricks’ game before, imagine what he thinks after the 29-year-old with 60 games of NHL experience recorded a hat trick to lead Washington to a 6-2 victory against Columbus in front of nearly 11,000 in its preseason opener.
“The only thing he could have done a little better was maybe be a little more physical,” Boudreau said. “He killed penalties for us and scored three goals. He’s making a bid for sure.”
Hendricks is making his bid seemingly out of nowhere. After he recorded nine goals and seven assists in 56 contests with the Avalanche last season, his signing with the Capitals in June stayed mostly under the radar as Caps fans and media clamored for the team to sign a big-name defenseman or a second-line center. In fact, his name went largely unreported until Boudreau mentioned him after yesterday’s training camp workout.
“I couldn’t ask for more,” Hendricks said after his three-goal opener in a Washington sweater. “It was a good game all around, obviously. We have to tighten up a little bit defensively. It was a great game for both of our goaltenders. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.”
To this point, the training camp focus has been on which three players would lock down the second- third- and fourth-line center slots. The “third line” of Jason Chimera, Matthieu Perreault and Eric Fehr had been perhaps the most impressive offensive group to date, while second-line center Tomas Fleischmann and left wing Alexander Semin had earned some harsh words from Boudreau who said they were “passing the puck around like it was shinny.” It’s funny how things can change when stakes are raised.
Fleischmann (two goals and an assist) and Semin (three assists) combined for six points in Washington’s victory, with linemate Brooks Laich also notching an assist, while the third line was the only Caps’ trio to finish the game on the minus side of the ledger. Fehr was the only third-liner to notch a point, assisting on Fleischmann’s second-period power-play marker.
Meanwhile, 2009 first-round draft pick Marcus Johansson, who has been praised consistently by Boudreau since the start of rookie camp, handed out a pair of assists in his first appearance at the NHL level. His no-look drop pass set up Hendricks’ first goal, and impressed his veteran linemate. “It was a great play by a very young man,” Hendricks said. “He played well. He made a lot of great plays out there and really plays with his head and with his head up.”
Said Johansson: “I heard him from behind and no one else was there, so I just dropped it for him instead of making the harder pass, and he made a great shot.”
Assuming that Fleischmann has at least somewhat solidified his spot as the No. 2 pivot, that leaves Perreault and Johansson battling for the third center slot. Each player figures to appear in four or five preseason games, so the Columbus game will ultimately be a small part of the equation, and Boudreaux really likes both players.
“For a guy like Marcus preseason games will mean a lot,” he said. “We’ll learn a lot more about him at the NHL level when he plays against NHL players with NHL players on his wings. He makes a lot of things happen out there and he’s such a beautiful skater. He’s one of those players you’ll have to watch and watch. His positioning is very good. He’s not a dynamic, I got three goals today kind of guy. He just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes out there.”
Still, the efforts of smallish Perreault, who has gained about 12 pounds of muscle since last season, have not gone unnoticed. “He’s a good little player, and he’s pushing hard to have a place on this team. What does being ready mean? He has bulked up, he’s stronger and he’s a good player. We think that if he didn’t make it he’d be very close to making it.”
So where does that leave the roster? The first line appears set with Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Knuble. After the first preseason outing you can at least pencil in Semin, Fleischmann and Laich as the second line. Chimera, Perreault and Fehr have impressed until tonight, with Johansson pushing Perreault at the pivot.
Initially it looked like the fourth line would be a rotation of Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Bradley and enforcer D.J. King, but now with Hendrickson stepping up and Gordon and Steckel spending time in and out of Boudreau’s doghouse last season, it appears as though Hendrickson has an inside shot at a roster spot.
It makes sense that Gordon, who is the most versatile of the group, would have the edge to center the line consistently based on his showing in the playoffs vs. Montreal last year and Steckel’s disappointing season. King will make the roster to fill the tough-guy role, and Bradley has been one of the team’s heart-and-soul guys for the past several years.
Does that mean Steckel, a longtime Boudreau favorite who helped the coach win a Calder Cup at Hershey, will end up on the outside looking in? You can’t tell for sure after one preseason game, but it should make for an interesting couple of weeks in D.C.
Other Camp Notes
The Caps have been busy the past couple of days, signing defensemen Tom Poti to a two-year extension through 2011-12 and signing 22-year-old goaltender Michal Neuvirth to a two-year deal. They also signed WHL junior goalie Brandon Anderson to a three-year entry-level contract.
The signing of Poti means the Caps have five d-men – Poti, Mike Green, John Carlson, Tyler Sloan and Jeff Schultz -- signed through 2011-12.
Neuvirth, who will probably be considered the No. 2 goalie behind Semyon Varlamov, is the first tender to be the primary netminder for two consecutive Calder Cup champions since Pete Peeters in the late 1970s.
Neuvirth was 9-4 with a 2.75 GAA and a .914 save percentage in 17 games for the Caps last year and is 11-5, 2.80, .910 for his career. He went 7-1 at the Verizon center last season with a 1.75 GAA. Neuvirth was 14-4 for Hershey in the playoffs last spring after earning the MVP the year before with a 16-6 mark and a 1.92 GAA.
“When you look at the NHL there are a lot of goalies without a job,” Neuvirth said. “My goal is to play in the NHL. I could have waited to sign, but I decided not to. This is a great organization with a big chance to win the Stanley Cup, so why not sign with them now?”
By the way, Varlamov was very sharp in his first outing against Columbus, stopping all 20 shots he faced, including a spectacular series of saves early in the second period. “It was a great first statement,” Boudreau said of Varlamov’s play. “He kept us in. You could tell it was a preseason game. We had a tremendous amount of turnovers in the first and second period and gave them opportunities to score. We were a little ragged in our zone at times, but the goaltending was there to back it up when we weren’t very good …”
On Tuesday Ovechkin’s Team A won its second straight Duchesne Cup as the top squad in training camp despite falling to Team B, which had been shut out by Team C, 5-0, in its first game by a score of 4-3 on a late goal by Semin. Team A won the cup on goal differential after refusing to pull its goalie despite trailing by a goal.
Team B rebounded after a little “pep talk” from Boudreau following its shutout loss in the first game of camp. “Obviously it helped,” said Boudreau of his speech, “since they played a much better game against a team with some pretty good players who weren’t just cruising around out there.” …
The Caps’ roster stands at 47 after 12 players were assigned to Hershey and another five were returned to their junior teams …
Washington’s line combinations at Columbus looked like this:
Cody Eakin, a 2009 third-round draft pick, scored in his debut at the NHL level, netting the Caps’ fifth goal. Eakin also scored the game-winner in the rookie game vs. the Flyers rookies last week.
The defensive pairings: