Washington forward Troy Brouwer couldn’t help noticing something was amiss last Wednesday as the Capitals prepared to play in Montreal.
"I got to the rink and my jersey wasn't there," Brouwer said.
The mystery was cleared up quickly. The Capitals' staff was stitching an "A" on his sweater. With Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup, Brooks Laich had been awarded Backstrom’s designation as alternate captain for five games. Now it was Brouwer’s turn.
"For me, it's not a huge thing," Brouwer said, clearly downplaying the honor. "There are a lot of guys here who are leaders whether or not they have letters on their jerseys. Everyone brings their own experience, their own charisma to the team. We need everyone as a whole to be successful."
In Brouwer’s case, that experience involves a lot of dirty work. The Montreal game also saw the Capitals shuffle lines, with 21-year-old Marcus Johansson centering Brouwer and Alex Ovechkin. Brouwer responded to his new letter and linemates by setting up a Johansson goal with a nice centering pass, then screening Canadiens netminder Carey Price on Ovechkin’s power-play goal in a 3-0 win over the Habs.
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 24
SOG: 70 | +/-: 0
SOG: 70 | +/-: 0
Brouwer has quietly become one of the League’s top power forwards, after coming over from Chicago last summer in exchange for Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2011. The 6-foot-3 right wing has responded by delivering an all-round game. He dished out 11 hits against Pittsburgh on Jan. 11, and then two nights later scored his first career hat trick against Tampa Bay. On a given night, he can contribute with a variety of skills. He is equally adept at setting up a play or finishing on the rush. But in the end, his identity as is obvious as his big frame.
"He's a power forward," Washington coach Dale Hunter said. "You see his screens on the power play. That's a dirty job in there."
Like so many players who rely on their size, Brouwer got the message early that he needed to make use of his big body. Playing junior hockey in 2003-04, Moose Jaw coach Curtis Hunt knew he had a potentially dominant power play, with Brouwer, Tomas Fleischmann and Kyle Brodziak -- all three now NHL mainstays.
"If you want to play on the power play," Hunt told him, "you’re going to go to the front of the net."
Brouwer has relished the role ever since.
"I learned at a pretty young age, and I feel I'm pretty good at it," said Brouwer, who has 14 goals, three of them on the power play. "It comes with practice. You've got to learn your angles just as well as a goalie does. You have to know which side he likes looking on. Most goalies like looking toward the middle of the ice on the short side of the net."
That’s exactly what happened on Ovechkin’s goal against Montreal. Brouwer set up on top of the crease, forcing Price to move to his left to find Ovechkin at the point. With Price hugging the near post, Ovechkin blasted a shot inside the far post.
"It’s mostly trial and error," Brouwer said. "Most of my goals come from banging in rebounds. I've got a lot of good players around me."
Not the least of which is Ovechkin. The two have played together effectively for much of the season, perhaps because Brouwer has a history of playing with offensive luminaries like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago.
"The ice does sort of slant toward Ovechkin when you're playing with him," said Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010. "He's a guy that needs the puck to be successful. At the same time, he needs help as well. He needs guys to feed him the puck. My game just fits well with his as far as puck recoveries and being physical."
At 26 years old, Brouwer might just be scratching the surface of his scoring potential. He finished off his junior career with a 49-goal season, followed by two seasons in the American Hockey League where he tallied an eye-popping 76 goals in just 141 games.
"I've had quite a few opportunities this season that I've missed, so my (goal) total could be a little bit higher," Brouwer said. "But I think I'm plugging along real well."
Hunter isn’t complaining. As someone who made a living playing a rugged game in the NHL, the Washington coach appreciates what Brouwer does at the front of the net.
"The puck's coming in quick and you're getting cross checked," Hunter said. "He goes to the net hard, and makes the right little plays. He's also there hitting and blocking shots, doing the things that a power forward does."
Hunter added a quick nod and a smile. He knows what he’s got with his rugged, front-of-the-net forward.
"They're hard to come by," he said.