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Ward embracing chance to play on Capitals' top line

by Ben Raby /

ARLINGTON, Va. -- To say the odds were stacked against Joel Ward would be putting it mildly. Three months shy of his 28th birthday, with 11 games on his NHL resume, Ward sought fulltime work with the Nashville Predators in September 2008.

"I really thought it was a do-or-die kind of moment in my career," Ward said of his first training camp in Nashville.

It was there, after three years spent primarily with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League, that Ward met then-Predators coach Barry Trotz.

"I remember Joel came to camp," Trotz said, "and all the amateur scouts were telling me how good the young prospects were. But maybe this is where amateur scouts and coaches differ because I saw the detail and maturity of Joel's game -- he could handle a lot more than most of the kids."

Joel Ward
Joel Ward
Right Wing - WSH
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 34
SOG: 136 | +/-: -3
Ward made the Predators out of training camp and has since played more than 500 games in the NHL. It has been a long journey for the Scarborough, Ontario native who spent four years in the Ontario Hockey League, followed by four years at the University of Prince Edward Island before turning pro.

"I'll never forget that feeling when coach Trotz told me, 'You can get a place,'" Ward said.

"I think those words, next to hearing that I had graduated from school, were probably some of the biggest words that I had ever heard. There was a sense of relief that a lot of hard work had paid off."

Nearly seven years later, Ward and Trotz are together again with the Washington Capitals, where Ward has developed into a key cog on a team with aspirations of a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When the Capitals host the Boston Bruins in NBC's Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports), Ward is expected to join Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on Washington's No.1 line for a sixth straight game.

"I've never played with anybody of his stature before," Ward said of Ovechkin, the Capitals all-time leading scorer. "Obviously he's out there to make plays and score goals and I'm just along for the ride, trying to make the most of it."

The Capitals top-line right wing position remains fluid with two games remaining in the regular season, with Ward the latest candidate to get an extended look. Ward is one of nine players Trotz has used on Ovechkin's opposite wing this season, but one that could stick around come the postseason.

"He's a good stabilizing force for them," Trotz said. "His wall play and his smarts, the puck possession type of things he can do, he's got a good stick. … He sort of complements them, a little bit more on the cycle versus on the rush where he can still make some plays too."

Ward, 34, has joked about needing a Russian interpreter when skating alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov: "Sometimes they're going back and forth [in Russian] and I just nod, OK, sure, sounds good."

But between whistles, Ward explained Tuesday, playing with two of Washington's high-end offensive talents has provided a welcome boost to his own game late in the season.

"Usually when you're with [Ovechkin] you're facing top-end players on the other end, top defensive pairings, so you have to be aware," he said. "You have to know your surroundings and make smart decisions. So far we've been able to do that."

Ward enters play Wednesday with 19 goals and 34 points in 80 games and has been a fixture on Washington's second power-play unit for much of the season.

The 6-foot-1, 226-pound power forward has also been an ideal piece on a Capitals team that has adopted a heavier game, according to Trotz, with an emphasis on a strong forecheck that can wear down opposing defensemen.

"I understand my role," Ward said. "It doesn't change too much. My job is still to get in hard on the forecheck, hunt for pucks, make good plays defensively and get pucks out as quick as I can."

The Capitals are 4-0-1 since the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Ward trio was formed, with members of the top line combining for nine goals and 14 points over the five-game stretch.

The recent lineup shuffle saw Trotz split Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the first time since early November, which Trotz said offers more options to counter teams looking to match lines.

Ward concedes though that as much as he has enjoyed skating with Ovechkin on the top line, it can change at any moment. Until then, he's taking it in stride.

"I've congratulated [Ovechkin] that he gets a chance to play with me," said Ward in deadpan fashion. "He's earned it. He's embraced it. … But honestly, who am I kidding? This is great and I'm just going to go with it, and enjoy it. This is definitely a pretty good spot to be in."

Ward is also looking forward to a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he played the role of Game 7 hero in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals with an overtime game-winning goal in Boston.

"Hopefully we can make a strong run here as well and bring home the [Stanley Cup]," said Ward, an unrestricted free agent this summer.

"We're excited about the opportunity. It's been four years, a few different coaches, but we really want to push the envelope and bring it home here. We're due to make a good run and I'm just excited for that opportunity."

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