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More depth, new ideology bolster Caps down middle

by Corey Masisak /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In each of the past few seasons, the Washington Capitals were considered a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. If there was one reoccurring weakness on the roster, it was the lack of depth at center behind Nicklas Backstrom.

The Capitals have tried many players at the position, searching for a consistent presence as the No. 2 guy. When this postseason began, the Capitals weren't seen as a serious threat to win the Cup, but here they are one win from the Eastern Conference Finals.

While general manager George McPhee might not have found a prototypical guy to be the team's No. 2 center, a new coach and new style of play has limited the need for another significant offensive threat behind Backstrom. The guys behind him fit perfectly into coach Dale Hunter's ideology, and center has gone from a position of weakness to one of strength in Washington.

"I think in order to really be successful, you have to have strength down the middle, and also a little bit of size," Brooks Laich said. "For the centermen, you have a great responsibility. You have to be responsible defensively, but then you also want to be in on the forecheck. You're everybody's man on the ice. You have to support everybody."


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When the Capitals were at their apex, Laich was a left wing on the second line, but the guy between him and Alexander Semin was a rotating cast of characters. McPhee has traded for Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger and Jason Arnott to fill that role, with Fedorov being the only one who fit in well.

The Capitals have looked for options internally. Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Laich all had auditions in the spot as well. Eventually, Laich settled in and he has actually spent most of this postseason on the team's top line next to Alex Ovechkin while Backstrom joins Semin with the second unit.

The switch from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter changed the philosophy for the Capitals. They were no longer looking for someone who could mesh offensively with Semin and produce a lot of points at the position.

Laich offers a strong combination of toughness and defensive awareness to go along with some offensive acumen. He also offers the size he alluded to -- something that guys like Fleischmann in the past and Johansson and Perreault in the present do not.

The depth guys have also fallen into place behind Backstrom and Laich. In years past the Capitals have relied on David Steckel and Boyd Gordon as bottom-six centers that win key faceoffs and play on the penalty kill. Steckel was traded before the deadline last year and Gordon left as a free agent this past summer.

Taking their place in similar roles are Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks. They play together, as Steckel and Gordon often did, but Hunter relies on them more than Boudreau did on the departed duo.

Beagle and Hendricks play against the other team's top players at even strength as well, and their rise has coincided with the team's step forward at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.

"[Hendricks] 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 [darn] 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."

Not only do the Capitals appear to have moved past their issues at center, they have amassed enough depth to be able to cope with adversity when needed. Backstrom was suspended for a game in the opening round against Boston, but Perreault stepped in on the second line and the Capitals prevailed.

Beagle missed Game 6 of this series Wednesday against the New York Rangers, but Hendricks assumed the brunt of his responsibilities along with Jeff Halpern, who played for the first time this postseason, and Washington won again without one of its top three pivots.

The Bruins presented depth at center, with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell. The Rangers have Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle, but are without injured Brandon Dubinsky.

In neither series has Washington been at a disadvantage down the middle, and it is a big reason why the Capitals might finally reach the conference finals for the first time since 1998.

"Nicky plays an amazing game; he controls the puck, controls the game," Laich said. "[Beagle] has really shown that he's an NHL player and a quality NHL player. Jeff Halpern, he's been a captain here before. We've got centermen playing the wing. Matt Hendricks was a centerman before he came here. Marcus Johansson was a centerman that's been moved to the wing.

"If you can have as many of those guys in your lineup as possible, usually they can make a transition to another position, and you add in the defensive responsibility that comes with playing center, it makes your team better."

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