Slumping forward's work pays off with goal

Capitals forward Wojtek Wolski tried to deal with his slump as professionally as possible. But in a year he has admitted could serve as a crossroads for his NHL career, that was far easier said than done.

The underlying numbers said Wolski had played decent hockey through the first 20 games of the season. When he was on the ice, Washington was directing plenty of shots at the opposing net. But the goals just weren't coming despite heavy minutes as a top-six forward. And so as a pointless streak grew to 10 games, Wolski slid down the lineup. He was finally made a healthy scratch Saturday at Winnipeg.

But the illness that has struck the Caps over the last 10 days took out forward Troy Brouwer early this week. When he proved too sick to play Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins, Wolski was right back in the lineup. This time he broke through with the game-tying goal with 6:05 remaining in an eventual 4-3 overtime victory. It was exactly the ray of light the struggling player needed.

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"I had so many chances in the last 10 games, and missing open nets, it gets frustrating," Wolski said. "It's easy to not do the work and just shut down, but I've been trying to keep with the game plan, trying to come in early, trying to work hard, work on the boards, skate as much as I can. And I'm happy that it paid off."

At one point during a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Feb. 17, Wolski was all alone with goalie Henrik Lundqvist down and out and the open net yawning. Instead he pushed the puck wide, throwing his hands up in despair before the puck even reached the opposite corner. It had become clear to Washington coach Adam Oates that Wolski's offensive struggles were starting to affect other areas of his game. As teammate Matt Hendricks said Tuesday, Wolski was "maybe squeezing the stick a little bit. [The goal] couldn't have been [at] a better time for us."

With Wolski on the ice this season, the Caps have generated 30.9 shots per 60 minutes of ice time. That ranks first on the team, so he's clearly been driving puck possession in a positive way. But at age 27, on his fifth NHL team in four seasons and with no contract for next year yet, goals and points loom large for Wolski. Oates needs more than that, however. He wanted a harder game from Wolski along the walls -- fighting for pucks and winning battles -- and felt that at least he got that Tuesday. But will that be enough to stay on the ice Thursday against the Florida Panthers if Brouwer is ready to return?

"I'm obviously happy for [Wolski], but I thought he played a better hockey game. He did the things that we ask," Oates said. "The goal -- that's obviously big for us and big for him. But we don't talk production. We talk play. You've got to play, and there's another team [Tuesday] that we played that they're willing to win 1-0."