The NHL’s super-skilled players get paid big bucks for good reason; they’re the ones looked upon to carry a team and rise to the occasion in key moments. But as you dig deeper in the playoffs, opponents’ skill players often result in a wash, leaving the ultimate fate of a series in the hands of the depth players; the foot soldiers, so to speak.
One of those second-tier skaters who will be relied upon if the Capitals are to complete a Cup run is Brooks Laich.
In his fourth full NHL season, Laich’s name gets lost in the deserved buzz surrounding Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, but the 25-year-old sits behind only those four aforementioned stars in team scoring. He’s also surpassed his career-high in points by five already this season, with 42 in 75 games.
“We have so many talented players on this team, if I can add some offensive depth, that can really help,” Laich told THN.com after scoring the game-tying goal with less than a minute remaining in an eventual 3-2 shootout loss to Toronto. “My role is a little different from those guys. Those guys are the fancy playmakers and shooters and I’m a puck-recovery guy and skater who goes to the net to get the ugly goals.”
The Saskatchewan native’s first 20-goal campaign last season helped net him a three-year, $6.1-million extension, but Laich’s game is about much more than numbers. Scoring may be the bread, but Laich’s peanut butter and jam is his versatility – he can play all three forward positions and lines up on both the PP and PK – and reliability, to the tune of 178 consecutive games played.
“I call it being a consummate professional,” Laich said. “My dad told me he only missed three days of work in 34 years, which is amazing. It’s that consistency and that desire to work and to be accountable that I took to heart.”
Hard work isn’t something Laich has shied away from during his career. After an inauspicious selection in the sixth round (193rd overall) by the Senators in 2001, the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder who had no trouble scoring in junior – averaging 1.27 points per game over his final two Western League seasons – went to work on morphing himself into a player who could be successful at the NHL level.
“I had to round out my game; become more of a two-way player,” said Laich, who spent two full seasons in the American League before joining the Caps. “I had to learn how to penalty-kill, block shots and chip pucks out; the little things that help us win in different ways.”
Questions still abound concerning Washington’s goaltending, but if Jose Theodore can be more 2001-02 and less 2005-06, the Caps have plenty of firepower to do damage in the East.
“I love our chances; I love our hockey team,” Laich said. “When we play up to our abilities I think we’re a very dangerous hockey team. We’ve got the best player in the world and we’ve got the best D-man in the world.
“We have a bunch of young stars and though we’re still learning and still trying to get better, we’ve got one year more experience than we had last year. We were a bit of a deer in the headlights last season, so to speak.
“This year we know what to expect. We expect more of ourselves and expect to be more of a force in the playoffs.”
If last year’s post-season performance, where he had six points and was a plus-2 in a seven-game loss to the Flyers, is any indication, Laich’s ready to be a difference-maker much longer into the spring.
“I find the playoffs the most fun time of year to play,” Laich said. “It starts getting warm outside and the pressure of games mount. Everyone’s more intense and everyone is more desperate.
“Into April, May and June, I think it’s a fantastic time.”
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
Laich isn’t the only member of the Capitals who feels things will be different in this year’s playoffs. In THN.com’s latest video feature, producer Ted Cooper explores how many of Washington’s warriors think a run to the Cup is in the cards.
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.