(photo by Brian Murphy)
Hockey fans have come to expect greatness from Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin. So it’s not exactly newsworthy when he’s atop the NHL leader board for points.
But when Caps forward Brooks Laich ranks in the top 20 in scoring … well … that’s a different story. We caught up with the popular forward this morning after practice to get to the bottom of this surprising trend.
With three goals and four assists in your first six games, you’ve started the season on a hot streak. To what do you attribute your hot start?
“Luck? I don’t know,” Laich said. “I’m playing with some good players, some offensive minded players. Our powerplay can be very dangerous at times, and I’m getting some time on that. When you’re out there with them you’re going to get opportunities to score.”
In years past you’ve spent some of your time on the checking line, but this years you’re logging a ton of minutes on one of the top two lines with more skilled linemates. That’s got to be nice, right?
“Oh yeah, it’s been nice,” he said. “Coming into camp, I don’t worry about goals and assists. I just try to improve myself every year. The main thing I look at is ice time and responsibility. If you can be on the powerplay and you can be on the penalty kill and in checking assignments or late in games to try and hold the lead, it means you’re a responsible player and a player that can help the team win. Those are the things that I focus on more than just goals and assists. That being said, the offensive production has been nice.”
No one can question the level of talent in the Caps locker room with high-flying players like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. But then you’ve also got grittier players like you, Mike Knuble and Chris Clark doing the thankless work in the corners and in front of the net. How important is it to have that kind of balance?
“You can’t just have a team full of guys who muck it up in front of the net or a team full of perimeter players,” Laich said. “You have to have a nice combination of both. I think with the guys we have, we’re starting to get that. If you watch games, goals are usually scored within 10-15 feet of the net off rebounds or deflections or a puck hitting off of a skate. There aren’t too many two-on-ones or backdoor tap-ins happening anymore because teams play so well defensively.
“We have a good mixture of both, and I think the way that Clarkey and Knuble play is infectious,” he said. “You see a guy like Eric Fehr just back from shoulder issues going to the net. Brendan Morrison plays in the tight zones and around the net too and other players see that, and the success they have and they start doing it as well.”
Obviously you’re going to line up with whoever coach Bruce Boudreau pairs you up with, but do you have a personal preference as to which forwards you enjoy skating with?
“The running joke around here is its musical chairs,” Laich said. “You can show up on any day and be lined up somewhere else. I’ve played a lot with Semin. I’ve played a lot with Morrison and Knuble. I’ve played a lot with Stecks [David Steckel] and Brads [Matt Bradley]. I know how all those guys play. I’ve been here five years now and have played with lots of these guys a majority of that time. You get familiar with how these guys play, adapt to their style and it makes the game pretty easy to play.”
This team got off to a hot start, with a couple of early victories, but you’ve lost your last four – two in overtime and two in regulation. What do you chalk it up to and how do you turn it around?
“Well, we’ve played some very good teams,” he said. “Look at all of the teams we’ve lost to – they’re going to be playoff teams and last year, they all finished first or second in their division. The teams we’ve played are very good and it’s not going to change tomorrow when we play San Jose.
“The other thing is, we’re not sneaking up on teams anymore,” Laich continued. “Teams get very excited to play us because there’s a lot of media hype around our team and obviously we have Alex Ovechkin, which teams really have to prepare for. We see other teams’ best every night and we have to be better than what we’ve shown. There’s no excuse for it. We’ll look for a better effort tomorrow.”
There have been a couple instances during this slide in which you guys haven’t been able to hold onto a third period lead. What do you guys need to do to close opponents out more consistently?
“If you knew that, you could make a million dollars a year coaching,” Laich said with a laugh. “It’s just been little mistakes here or there that have caught up with us. The good thing about it is we’ve had the lead in all of those games. If we were behind in all of those games, chasing and trying to catch up, then I’d say we have a major problem. But we’ve had the lead, and maybe we’ve taken a couple undisciplined penalties and had a few turnovers, but those are all correctable mistakes. That’s why there’s no reason to panic.”
Lastly, we wanted to talk about goalie Jose Theodore. While the numbers might not do him justice, he’s been playing really well of late – especially in overtime against New Jersey the other night. What have you seen from him so far this season?
“The three hacks that [Zach] Parise had the other night – the first one, I said, ‘Ahh, it’s in the net.’ The second one, I said, ‘Ahh, it’s in the net, and the third on, I said, “Oh man, it’s going in the net,’” he said. “But Theo stopped all three of them. He’s been great. He’s come in and got refocused. He’s excited to be at the rink. He went through some off-ice troubles, but the team has really been here for him. He’s really come in with a good attitude and hasn’t let anything else affect him, and we’re so glad to see him doing well.”