By Adam Vingan
Before the Washington Capitals were missing Alex Ovechkin due to suspension, they were missing Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Backstrom had not played since receiving an elbow from former Calgary Flames forward Rene Bourque January 3. Johansson, Backstrom’s usual understudy, was under the weather, prompting head coach Dale Hunter to look further down his depth chart.
Hunter decided to place Mathieu Perreault in between Ovechkin and Mike Knuble on the first line to start Sunday’s game. Perreault, who seldom played above the fourth line or in general at the time (he was a healthy scratch during the final three games of the Caps’ recent four-game homestand), filled in admirably, earning two assists in Washington’s 4-3 overtime loss.
Tuesday against the Boston Bruins, the Caps were without Ovechkin and Backstrom, so Perreault centered the top line while Marcus Johansson and Alexander Semin complemented him on either side, giving him another opportunity to prove his worth. In the end, the Caps did not need their two leading scorers as Perreault led Tuesday’s scoring with his first career hat trick in a 5-3 victory.
“This is the best feeling ever,” a red-eyed Perreault said after the game. “Getting three goals and we won the game. This is awesome.”
“You can’t explain that feeling,” he continued. “This is what you dream of. You dream to play in the NHL, but when you get a hat trick, it’s even better. It was just a great feeling.”
Perreault has always been an energetic player, coming through in spurts when the Caps need him most. Tuesday, all three of his goals gave Washington a one-goal lead. Such energy is valuable on the checking lines as a way to garner some momentum, but with the Caps missing their star power, Hunter decided to use Perreault’s energy in another way.
“We were talking in the morning about people stepping up when key guys are missing and Matty stepped up,” he said. “You look at his stats when he was younger and stuff. He’s always put up numbers and won scoring races in junior. You know he had skill and that’s why he went right to the top line right from the fourth line because we knew he could fill in with some skill.”
While Perreault had an unparalleled night offensively, he did struggle at times; he took two penalties, one of which allowed the Bruins to tie the game just 3:09 after he gave Washington a 3-2 lead. While that was just one segment of one game, “hot and cold” performances have defined Perreault’s short NHL career so far.
When Washington recalled Perreault last season, he was guaranteed to follow spirited performances with forgettable ones; in his first game of the 2010-11 season against the Atlanta Thrashers October 23, 2010, he earned two assists. In the following two games, however, he failed to register a point. During his second opportunity, he scored two goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs December 6, 2010, before going pointless in his next four.
In his first full NHL season, that has not changed. Perreault opened the season with five points in his first five games, but then went nine games before registering his next point. After earning an assist against the Florida Panthers December 5, Perreault made it through seven more games without a point.
Perreault now has six points (four goals) in his last four games while also seeing the most and second-most ice time of his career in his last two games (16:22 and 13:56, respectively). With Washington missing its most prolific scorers, Perreault knows that he must continue to consistently produce and he is eager to continue proving himself.
“[I’ve] just got to keep doing my thing and work hard,” he said.”Obviously, when you get more minutes, it’s always easier. It seems to be that when I get hot, I get more minutes, obviously, so I’m just trying to get off to a good start so I can keep getting more ice time and games.”