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Hard-nosed Hendricks emerging as a team leader

by Ben Raby

ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Matt Hendricks received a professional tryout from the Washington Capitals in September 2010, few of his future teammates would have predicted that he would someday become a key cog on a Stanley Cup contender.

"Gosh, my first impression was that this guy doesn't shut up," Brooks Laich recalled Thursday of the Minnesota native who was 29 at the time with 60 career NHL games to his credit.

"The very first game I played with him was in Columbus and he ended up scoring a hat trick," Laich said. "I had never known the guy, we had been in training camp together for two days and before we went on the ice for this exhibition game -- the first exhibition game of the year -- this guy was just non-stop talking and I'm thinking 'I don't know if I can take this.'"

Nearly two years later, Laich and his teammates can't get enough of Hendricks -- "the stereotypical plumber," according to Troy Brouwer -- who has emerged as a team leader both on and off the ice.

His pregame talks have become legendary -- "I was hoping HBO would have shown a little more of him [during the '24/7' series leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic]," Laich said -- and his work ethic on the ice has been easy to follow.


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"He could be our captain," said Karl Alzner. "He's a guy that goes out, he fights if he has to and he blocks all the shots. ... He takes guys down; he took a guy like [Bruins defenseman Zdeno] Chara down a couple of times in the first series. It's just a guy that has no fear and just goes out and plays."

Hendricks won't wow you with his speed or scoring ability, but he has quietly emerged as a reliable third-line checker who fits perfectly in Dale Hunter's defensive system.

"Hendy is one of these guys that you can put him anywhere in the lineup and he's going to be successful," Hunter said. "He works so damn hard out there that he's hard to play against. You wouldn't want to play against him because he doesn't give you much room and he's physical out there without taking penalties."

Hendricks ranks second in the playoffs with 57 hits, but has been called for just two minor penalties. He has also filled in admirably since shifting from wing to center against the Rangers, having won a team-best 57.4 percent of his faceoffs, including a perfect 9-0 in Game 4.

"You know what you're going to get from him," said Brouwer, who has played alongside Hendricks on the third line for part of the postseason. "You know you're not going to get turnovers or high-quality opportunities against him. He blocks shots and makes it tough for other teams to play."

Asked what makes Hendricks so tough to play against, Laich smirked back.

"Well, I don't know if I can say it," Laich began, "but it's because he's a [pest] on the ice. You don't want to play against a guy like that. ... He's physical and he's strong and he plays hard minutes. He's a very good hockey player and everybody in our room knows how important he is, and finally people outside the room are starting to take notice."

The scrappy forward, who is regularly the first player on the ice at every Capitals practice, has also embraced the shutdown role with which he and his linemates have been trusted.

"It's a fantastic feeling," Hendricks said. "Before I got to this League, the guys like [Brad] Richards and [Patrice] Bergeron, these are the guys that you see on TV a lot -- their highlights and what they do for their teams. They're all-stars, and for us to get the opportunity to shut them down and see the frustration [grow] as the series progresses, it's a good feeling."

Hendricks' training camp invite in 2010 was partly a byproduct of his relationship with then-Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. Hendricks played for Boudreau with the Hershey Bears in 2006-07 and quickly earned Boudreau's trust once again with a strong preseason with the Caps.

But as the games grew in importance last spring, Hendricks saw his ice time decrease and was eventually made a healthy scratch for two games in Washington's second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Nothing has been given to that guy," Laich said. "He's earned it all and he's a heart-and-soul type of guy that you have to have. When we win hockey games he may not be on the score sheet, but guys in the room are giving him a pat on the back."

Hendricks has made the most of his opportunity this spring, notching his first career playoff goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins and finishing with a game-high 11 hits and six shots in the Caps' triple overtime loss in Game 3 against the Rangers.

"It's been a dream so far," Hendricks said. "It's been a joy ride, it's been a lot of fun, a lot of work, a lot of bumps and bruises, but that's the niche that I have on this team and the role that my linemates and I play and I couldn't be happier with the way things have been going. I'm very fortunate."

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