Capitals forward Beagle embodies NHL playoffs' spirit
Washington Capitals centre Jay Beagle celebrates with teammate Andre Burakovsky after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers in the second period in Game 3 of the second round of the 2015 NHL playoffs at the Verizon Center. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes — and salary structures — in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On some nights, it is a three-time MVP with a $10-million US cap hit who is setting up the winning goal. Other times, the star of the game is an undrafted, third-line grinder who still drives an 1986 GMC Jimmy with “rusted-out floorboards” and, until recently, was taking calls on an out-dated flip phone.
No one will ever confuse Jay Beagle with Alex Ovechkin. Heading into the playoffs, Beagle had scored fewer goals in his entire 254-game NHL career than Ovechkin had this season. But on a night when all the snipers were shooting blanks, it was a fluke goal on a wraparound from the Calgary native that gave the Washington Capitals a 1-0 win on Monday — and a 2-1 series lead against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal.
“That’s the playoffs,” Beagle said of his pinball goal, which banked in off two players. “And that’s why it’s fun to play. Every little thing can make a huge difference. It’s pretty amplified when there’s only been a couple of goals per game.”
While the second round has featured lopsided losses in the other three series, Washington and New York has been a tightrope walk between two evenly matched teams. All three games have been decided by one goal. And because neither team is giving up anything in terms of goaltending, defence or scoring chances, the consensus is that the series will go seven games.
It would go eight, if that were possible.
“The quality of the goaltending that we’re seeing, the quality of the defensive play, there’s not a lot of chances,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “It’s a challenge.”
“There’s not a lot of room,” said Rangers forward Dominic Moore. “The kinds of goals you see are not the tic-tac-toe plays.”
The margin for error is so slim that little things, such as winning a faceoff or blocking a shot or even winning a puck battle along the boards, can become the difference between a win and a loss.
In Game 1, Ovechkin set up Joel Ward for the winning goal with 1.3 seconds remaining in the third period. But it was the hit that Nicklas Backstrom delivered on Dan Boyle moments earlier that kick-started everything. Rewind the tape of Beagle’s goal on Monday night and you will see that while New York’s Keith Yandle accidentally redirected the puck into his own net, Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov set everything in motion when he dumped the puck in deep rather than try and beat a defender one-on-one.
“The best way to say it is there aren’t any small moments in the game of hockey,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “It could be a lost faceoff, just throwing the puck to the net at a certain angle. It’s getting the puck behind a defenceman versus trying to dangle him in an inappropriate time … Every moment really counts when you’re in a close series.”
Every shot counts.
More than that, every line change counts.
Beagle said he would not have scored his goal on Monday unless Kuznetsov smartly dumps the puck in past the Rangers defence. But Beagle might not even be on the ice — much less have the puck —if Kuznetsov gets greedy with his ice time.
“Kuzy gets that puck deep and also makes a great change, which is something people probably don’t see,” said Beagle, who hopped on for the Washington centre. “He could have went for one more rush, but making the change kind of confuses the Rangers defenders, because you’re coming off the bench and it left me open.”
In previous years, the Capitals were a team that played for the big moments. They did not rely so much on backchecking or blocking shots, but rather on Ovechkin taking a game over with his skill. Trotz changed all that and demanded contributions — big and small — from “not one or two players, but 20 guys that can help us win every night.”
On Monday night, the hero was Beagle. In Game 4, it could be the player who did that thing that you did not even notice.