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CAPITALS: When Game Is Tight, Team Learning To Trust Fourth Line

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

NEW YORK – Mike Knuble knows what type of effort is required in the playoffs. That’s a lesson learned from making 11 postseason appearances in 14 years.

Knuble, though, was on the outside looking in at the start of the Washington Capitals’ postseason run this year. A healthy scratch through the first three games of the first round against Boston, Knuble’s contributions were limited only to practice.

Thing have changed in the last six games. And when Knuble scored the first goal Monday in the Capitals’ 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, it only reinforced a notion that the series-winning goal linemate Joel Ward scored against the Bruins a week ago wasn’t a fluke.

“We’re not going out there thinking we’re going to score,” Knuble said Monday. “That’s a huge bonus if you do. But our job is to tilt the ice, and I think we’ve been pretty clear about that.”

The fourth line is rarely noted for anything but being physical and providing a break for the others during the regular season. Things change in the playoffs, when depth is more critical to success, and the Capitals couldn’t have gotten a better effort from Knuble, Ward and center Keith Aucoin as the Eastern Conference semifinals shift to Verizon Center for the next two games beginning tonight.

“A so-called fourth line,” forward Jason Chimera said, “They’re playing like they’re a first line, so it’s good for them.”

Ward and Aucoin have played in all nine postseason games for the Capitals thus far, but it’s been the addition of Knuble that’s provided a boost. He entered the lineup only when center Nicklas Backstrom was suspended for Game 4 for delivering a post-game cross check, and when Backstrom returned, head coach Dale Hunter made the choice to scratch center Mathieu Perreault, who played in 64 games this season – including the last 38 – instead of losing Knuble’s physicality and experience.

“We’ve been good defensively. We’ve been strong,” Knuble said, adding that the line hasn’t been “a hindrance to our team defense.”

“I think we’ve been good, first of all, in that respect. And then at times when we haven’t scored, we’ve been able to play in their end and kind of drag the puck around and make guys play in their own end. I think that’s your job.”

Hunter played Aucoin, who spent much of his time with the Capitals on the wing since being recalled from Hershey mid-season, intermittently at center over the last few weeks because of his game instincts.

The well-choreographed goal 12:20 into Game 2 demonstrated what the trio can do, when Ward intercepted a pass at center ice to start a three-on-two rush, passed it to Aucoin in the middle, got it back to the left of the net and sent it over to Knuble on the right. With a quick lift of the puck, Knuble easily beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist from no more than two feet from the net.

When the Capitals’ top three scorers – Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – have just seven of the 20 goals scored by the team in the postseason, others need to score. Knuble and his linemates have done just that.

“You need them players,” Hunter said. “They play hard every night. The press don’t write about ‘em a lot. But they’re the foot soldiers of the team and we need these guys to come up, and come playoff time, that’s how you win games like [Monday]. It’s a grind out there.”


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