When looking at the last few Stanley Cup winners, there seems to be a common thread that ties them all together: a complementary veteran presence that leads by example on the ice. The Boston Bruins had Mark Recchi last season; the Pittsburgh Penguins had Bill Guerin in 2009.
The Washington Capitals have that player in Mike Knuble, who, like Recchi and Guerin, is a complementary veteran presence that leads by example. The overwhelming difference, however, is that Knuble is not on the ice.
Knuble’s trials and tribulations this season are well-documented; he was a healthy scratch 10 times during the regular season, had his eight-season streak of 20-plus goals snapped and finished with his lowest point total in 10 years. When head coach Dale Hunter scratched Knuble in February, it came as a shock. By April, it was second-nature.
With Knuble sitting out of the first three games of the Caps’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Bruins, the sobering, yet unfortunate reality of his demise has become clear. Yet, what is even more clear based on the series so far – especially Game 3 – is that Knuble is made for the kind of games that Washington and Boston are playing.
Knuble cemented himself as a regular NHLer by being tough as nails, driving to the net with reckless abandon and doing yeoman’s work in front, cleaning up the messes of the superstars surrounding him. The Caps and Bruins are playing hard-nosed hockey, but instead of putting in the 6’3″, 230-pound Knuble to give his team an advantage, Hunter is relying on Keith Aucoin, all 5’8″ and 171 pounds of him (which might be generous), who played just 7:11 during Monday’s 4-3 loss, and Joel Ward, who, despite his playoff heroics last spring, has failed to make any sort of impact with four shots in just under 26 minutes of total ice time, the lowest combined total on the team.
Knuble is not the only player that is languishing in the press box. The Caps sorely miss Jeff Halpern, the fifth-best faceoff man in the NHL this season, in this series; Brooks Laich, who has taken a team-high 59 faceoffs, has only won 21 of them (35.6 percent, 45th out of 48 in the NHL), while Patrice Bergeron has won 47 of his team-high 79 (59.4 percent). Meanwhile, Dmitry Orlov, arguably one of Washington’s best all-around defenseman, has been scratched in favor of Jeff Schultz, who appeared in only 54 games (and sat out the entire month of January as a healthy scratch) and is a minus-4. To add insult to non-injury, the pair of Schultz and Dennis Wideman have been on the ice for four of Boston’s six goals in three games, making them a defensive liability.
The focus, however, is on Knuble, who would likely make the biggest difference in this series by being inserted into the lineup. Healthy scratches are usually also-rans, but Knuble is a horse that still has one last push left in him and he should have the opportunity to ride off into the sunset instead of being put down unceremoniously.