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Halpern shakes off rust to play key role for Caps

by Ben Raby

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Jeff Halpern admits that being a healthy scratch for 19 straight games for the first time in his NHL career took some adjustment.

"I definitely went through a pretty broad range of emotions and feelings," the Washington Capitals center said Friday. "Ultimately, though, you have to stay professional and whether you're in or out of the lineup or whether you agree or not with your role, you have to stay professional and be able to do the job that's asked of you when the time comes."

For Halpern, his time came Wednesday in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Rangers, when an injury to center Jay Beagle left a void in Dale Hunter's lineup.

Enter Halpern, the only other right-handed center on the team, who made his 2012 Stanley Cup Playoff debut Wednesday after going 47 days between games.

"You go through cycles," Halpern said of going nearly seven weeks without donning a sweater. "I'd like to say my attitude was great the whole time, but it's hard watching, especially this time of year. You want to be a part of it."

Jeff Halpern
Jeff Halpern
Center - WSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 1 | +/-: -1
While sitting as a healthy scratch for such a long stretch was a first in Halpern's career, the former Capitals captain will look to experience another first in Game 7 Saturday (7:30 p.m., ET, NBCSN, CBC). The 12-year NHL veteran with nearly 900 games to his credit has never been on the ice for a series-clinching win.

That could change in New York if Halpern remains in the lineup and the Caps can win their second straight Game 7 on the road. Beagle did not skate Friday and Hunter said that he remains day-to-day.

"The biggest thing this time of year is just the chance to be able to continue to play," said Halpern, who has been on the losing end of a post-series handshake six times. "That's the best part of making the playoffs and moving on each round -- you're part of what's going on and you still have that chance of winning the Cup. I think that's the biggest thing for me right now, especially with where my career's at."

Halpern is coming off a career-low four-goal and 16-point campaign, and was a healthy scratch in 12 of Washington's last 15 regular-season games and in each of the Caps' first 12 playoff games.

In Washington's 2-1 Game 6 win, though, Halpern skated 10:23 while recording a shot on goal and winning seven of 13 faceoffs. The 36-year-old also played important shifts in the game's final minutes with the Caps protecting a late lead.

"Beagle's a great player, and we'd welcome him back, but you add in a former captain of the Washington Capitals in Jeff Halpern, they're cut from the same mold," said teammate Brooks Laich. "[Halpern is] great on draws, a great penalty killer, and coming in with a world of enthusiasm. You take one out, but I thought Jeff did a great job of filling that hole."


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Added Halpern: "It was a good opportunity I had last game. It's hard -- a month and a half of trying to stay in game shape -- and it's a process obviously, but I think you just have to be happy with the opportunity."

Halpern centered Washington's fourth line in Game 6 on Wednesday and again at practice Friday morning, with Mike Knuble, 39, and Keith Aucoin, 33, on his wings. The veteran trio combined for just two shots on goal in Game 6, but spent the majority of their even-strength shifts working down low in the Rangers zone.

"I can't speak for Jeff, but just from knowing him as a guy, he's a local guy, he was captain here before and so of course it's very difficult," said Knuble, who was a healthy scratch himself in 10 regular-season games and in Washington's first three playoff games.

"I thought he came in and did a great job. He just jumped right into the game and played like he didn't miss a day. He's a veteran guy, you know it's very difficult, but he got his chance and he did well with it. It's got to be pretty satisfying for him in that respect."

Halpern acknowledged that it took time in Game 6 before he felt his feet were under him and his timing was back where it needed to be. But as the Capitals and Rangers prepare to meet for Game 7 with banged-up bodies and plenty of ice bags, Halpern's 36-year-old legs may be the freshest of them all.

"You have to give props to Jeff," Aucoin said. "He never complained, he worked hard, he skated a lot after practices and kept in great shape and kept himself ready. I think the biggest thing is that he kept himself ready mentally, and he showed how professional he is to come into a Game 6 with our backs against the wall and play as well as he did."

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