Check, PleasePosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Caps center Brooks Laich is a natural pivot who has played more on the wing than in the middle during his last few NHL seasons. He is comfortable at either position, but prefers center. When he has been deployed as a center over the last few seasons, it has generally been in a second line role, with offensive output as the primary focus of his line. That role has changed this fall, as Caps coach Bruce Boudreau has tasked Laich and linemates Jason Chimera and Joel Ward with the responsibility of shutting down the opposition’s top lines. “There is a bit of a slight mindset difference,” says Laich, of the difference between skating on a scoring versus checking line. “When you have a [checking] assignment, you’re still expected to score being on the third line, but you also have an assignment of trying to be even or better against another team’s top players. Sometimes, you might want to go a little more offensive but you have to realize that in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s better that you don’t go chance for chance and you make a safe play and maybe hang back a little bit. “That being said, I still think if we’re lined up against other teams’ top lines, I think we can still produce offensively.” In Saturday night’s season opener, Laich and his new linemates did exactly that, combining for two goals and an assist and they helped limit Carolina’s top line to four even-strength shots on goal in the Caps’ 4-3 overtime win over the Hurricanes. Carolina’s Eric Staal and linemates Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu also had a significant impact on the game; they were involved in all three Carolina goals. But two of those tallies came when Carolina was on the power play and the other was scored with an extra attacker on the ice in the penultimate minute of regulation. “I’d maybe give us a B-minus,” says Laich, when asked to rate his line’s performance in the season opener. “I thought we were okay. I don’t think we gave up a lot defensively, but I still think we can be better. There were a few shifts we had some good chances offensively and a forecheck going, but I still think we can do more.” Boudreau has never been shy about juggling his lines in both prosperous and fallow times. The unfolding season will tell us how long Laich’s trio stays together, but it’s a checking line from central casting with each player possessing all the accoutrements: size, speed, grit, experience, work ethic, defensive acumen and more than a modicum of offensive ability. ”It is more of what you would call a classic checking line,” says Boudreau of Laich’s line. “At the same token, we could also throw in Halpern, Hendricks and Beagle in the same mold as those guys. I would think that the Laich line would be a checking/scoring line and the Halpern line would be more classic as a checking/energy line, if we’re going to put labels on people.” Laich’s line has a better offensive history than Halpern’s, but both could be capable shutdown options. Laich’s line has proven ability to assume a larger number of minutes, which could be a key asset when facing offensive juggernaut trios that routinely log upwards of 20 minutes a night. Laich skated 21:27 in Saturday’s opener, tops among all Washington forwards in the game. His average ice time per game has increased every single season, from under 11 minutes a night in a five-game trial in 2003-04 to 18:25 a game last season. Ward skated 15:29 on Saturday, but has averaged better than 17 minutes a night in each of the last two seasons. Chimera logged 13:20 in the opener, but has averaged 16-plus minutes a night as recently as 2008-09 and averaged a career high 17:30 in ’07-08. “The other thing is we’ve got a responsible fourth line,” says Laich, echoing Boudreau’s comments. “Halpy and Hendricks and Jay Beagle are 99 percent of the time going to be defensively responsible. So if there is a little bit of a match-up problem, if we’re a little bit tired or something, you don’t have to put our line out. You have almost a ‘1B’ that you can fall back on. “You’re never going to check one line with just one line. You kind of have to do it by committee. The game goes too quick and there are too many intangibles and different things happening in the game. But as much as possible, I’d like to have our line matched up [with the opposition’s top trio]. But it’s nice to know that you have another line you can throw out there, too.” There are 81 games to go, and many more line combinations to be auditioned and fawned over. For now, the Laich line is the one to go up against the likes of Staal, Steven Stamkos, Brad Richards, David Krecji and the other elite Eastern Conference centers and their linemates. Hockey is a zero sum game. Goals prevented are as important as goals scored. So what gives Laich more satisfaction, scoring a key goal or shutting down the opposition at even strength (he did both on Saturday)? “Scoring goals is really nice,” says Laich with a broadening grin. “Especially on the power play; those are nice goals. “But I’ve always had a respect for players who are tough to play against. So for myself, if I can make it tough for someone to play against me then I feel like I’ve done a great job impacting the game. It’s something our line takes pride in, playing on the other side of the puck. I think if we can gain that advantage by being even or better against the other team’s top line, the rest of our guys are going to take care of business.”
Tonight's game against the Lightning is the second game of the season and it's on a Monday night. Not so very long ago, that match-up would have meant a crowd somewhere south of 10,000 at The Phone Booth and a less-than-scintillating 60 minutes of hockey down on the ice sheet. Those days are gone.