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Hendricks is Caps' Masterton Nominee

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Matt Hendricks scored his ninth goal of the season for the Capitals in the third period of Wednesday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the 81st game of the 2010-11 season. That matched the total he put up for Colorado in 2009-10, his first full season in the NHL. But it’s one short of where he wanted to be and two short of where he should be.

Hendricks finished with nine goals, narrowly missing becoming the first Caps player in nine years to reach the double-digit level in goals and fighting majors in the same season.

Chris Simon scored 14 goals and had 11 fights for Washington in 2001-02. Hendricks had 14 fights in addition to his nine goals this season. He also had two goals disallowed by dubious officiating calls, most notably and most recently in the first period of a March 15 game at Montreal.

Hendricks, the team’s Masterton Trophy nominee for the 2010-11 season, has been a welcome addition to the Capitals. Along with Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley, he comprises a solid, gritty and workmanlike fourth line that relishes physical contact and is very difficult to play against. Hendricks has also shown a great knack for picking exactly the right spot in the game at which to drop the gloves.

“For me, the biggest thing once I decided I wanted this to be part of my role in the NHL is learning when to do it,” says Hendricks. “The timing is sometimes more important actually than the fight itself, I’ve found. That’s especially the case with me because I’m not usually a guy who is going to go out there and knock people out. I’m not going to grab an enforcer or a heavyweight and knock them out.”

Three of Hendricks’ nine goals have been game-winners, and at least as many of his 14 fights could be classified as game-winners, too.

Hendricks’ 14 fights have come in 13 games this season; he fought twice in that infamous 7-0 loss to the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12. Here’s what’s remarkable about Hendricks’ fights: only two of those 14 bouts came after the Caps scored their first goal of the game.

“I’m getting in the fights strictly to spark our team or to protect somebody,” declares the 29-year-old forward. “I had a lot of fights at the beginning of the year, for the most part for those reasons but also because I wanted to set a precedent for our team.

“I wanted our team to be viewed a little bit grittier and tougher than the Capitals were considered last season. Last season they were looked at as a [team with a] high potency offense, kind of soft. To play in this Eastern Conference, I really think you need to establish yourself as a gritty team. When you get into the playoffs and you’re going against teams like Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh, they’re gritty. And you need to be able to match that.”

Here’s a remarkable corollary to a dozen of Hendricks’ 12 fights coming when Washington has a zero on the scoreboard. The Capitals are 7-6 in games in which Hendricks fights.   

Only twice all season has Hendricks dropped the gloves when the Caps didn’t have a goose egg on the board. The first was in the Oct. 9 home opener. The Caps were up 7-2 in the third when a series of fights broke out late in the game. Hendricks fought New Jersey’s Rod Pelley just seconds after a Mike Green-Ilya Kovalchuk scrap.

The only other time Hendricks fought after the Caps had a goal or more on the board, he was directly responsible for the team getting that goal.

Going into the Feb. 4 game between the Capitals and the Lightning in Tampa Bay, Bolts goaltender Dwayne Roloson had pitched consecutive shutouts against the Caps. With the Caps already trailing 1-0 midway through the first frame, Hendricks took a calculated run at Roloson, incensing the netminder to the point that Roloson took to punching Hendricks, drawing an ill-advised roughing call that nullified the power play Tampa Bay would have gotten for Hendricks interfering with the goaltender.

With the two teams skating 4-on-4 less than a minute later, Nicklas Backstrom scored to even the game at 1-1. Eighteen seconds after exiting the penalty box, Hendricks fought Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie, who was merely standing up for his goaltender.

Any way you look at it, Hendricks’ actions were instrumental in Washington’s 5-2 win that night.

Hendricks got under Roloson’s skin that night. The Washington winger does some pre-scouting of opposition rosters, seeking possible targets for potential scab-picking, should the Caps require a spark at some point.

“I do it every game,” Hendricks states. “Obviously at this time of the season I’m not doing it as frequently, but I try to do it before every game. I look at who they have in their lineup, who is coming into their lineup who maybe hasn’t played in a while. And then I look at the guys who are in my role who haven’t fought, maybe they haven’t fought in five or six games and maybe they’re looking for something. Maybe they’re coming off a hard loss the night before, their minutes were [down] or the coaches weren’t too happy with them and they’re going to be willing. There are a lot of different aspects that you have to look at.

“For the most part, you’re in control. You control yourself. You control when you want to do it, and you control a lot of the nature of the beast. But there are those times when you stick up for your teammates.”

Sometimes Hendricks finds that he is unable to get someone in his own weight class to drop the mitts. On those occasions, he moves up a weight class, or fights a player with much more pugilistic experience than he.

With Washington down 2-0 in the first period at Calgary on Oct. 30, Hendricks fought Tim Jackman. The Caps scored seven unanswered goals and cruised to a 7-2 win. With the Caps struggling early a Feb. 26 game on Long Island a night after a 6-0 home ice drubbing at the hands of the Rangers, Hendricks took on the Islanders’ Zenon Konopka.

“The direct correlation between those two fights is I couldn’t find anyone else to go,” says Hendricks. “So I ended up having to go up a weight class. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t great for me. It doesn’t benefit me at all. But usually they’re the ones who are willing to go. If you can get them to fight when they have the lead, you can kind of coax them into it.”

Most players are loathe to drop the gloves when their team is leading and momentum is going their way. Hendricks knows that; he generally won’t fight in such situations.

“I’m definitely the player who is not going to do that,” says Hendricks. “If my team is up by a goal or two, I am going to try and calm myself. Obviously if there is a real dirty play or if something very upsetting happens, I’m going to probably jump in. But for the most part if the momentum is on our side, I am going to try and stay away from it. But in the case of those two fights exactly, I was able to coax them in. In the Calgary game, they were up 2-0. The Islanders, they were up 1-0 or 2-0 on us. It’s just about trying to find somebody who is a willing combatant.”

Hendricks doesn’t need matches or kerosene to start a fire, either.

“It’s a verbal action, it might a physical action, a little stick shot or a cheap shot,” notes Hendricks. “Trying to make them look like they don’t want to fight is a big thing. For the guys on the bench, their teammates, they understand why he wouldn’t fight me. They’re [winning]. But for everyone else watching the game, he doesn’t want to be looked at as back down from a guy at my level. It’s a lot easier to go up weight classes, I think. Except when you get to the heavies, they don’t want to fight guys like us because if we accidentally pop them with one, they don’t look too good.”

With Washington going so good down the stretch this season, Hendricks’ fire-starting skills weren’t needed as frequently. His last fight came on March 6 at Florida.

“I’ve talked to the coaching staff about it quite a bit,” relates Hendricks. “They don’t necessarily want me doing it quite as much. But I do it when it’s warranted. I don’t do it for my own personal gain, obviously. I think when you were seeing my [PIM] numbers from the five-minute majors going up and up, that was during a tough time in the season.”

Nashville drafted Hendricks in the fifth round (131st overall) of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. After a collegiate career at St. Cloud State, Hendricks turned pro at the tail end of the 2003-04 season. After five years of toiling for several organizations in several different cities, he finally made it to the NHL for a cup of coffee. Hendricks cracked his first training camp roster in the fall of 2009 at the age of 28.

“I had started fighting a little in the minor leagues,” he recalls. “That was all spur-of-the-moment, heat-of-the-battle type stuff. It was never at the face-off [saying], ‘Hey, do you want to go?’ It was all about battling and something coming out of it. I’d end up with five or six, maybe seven [fighting majors] a year.

“I thought I was a pretty good American League-level player. I thought I was very good, actually, and I thought I deserved an opportunity at the NHL level. I couldn’t figure out what [I needed to do] to get there.

“A friend of mine in Denver going into last season’s training camp just said, ‘Hey, maybe you should just forget about the puck all training camp. Don’t even think about it being out there, and just do the things that we need you to do here, and fight.’ I think I had six fights before training camp and exhibition was over, and I made the team.

“I really think that my play helped me get there, but I think showing the people that didn’t know me so well – “the brass” is what we call them – the head guys of the team, the head operators, that I was willing to do anything to stay at that level. I wanted to show them that I was willing to pay the price in all aspects of the game to stay there. I think that meant a lot to them and they gave me the opportunity.”

Hendricks’s work in 2010-11 with the Caps not only earned him the Masterton nomination, but also the first one-way contract of his pro career. Signed to a two-year deal through the 2012-13 season, Hendricks will have more chances to crack that esteemed double-digit goals/fights plateau.
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