Decrease in forward's minutes serves as wake-up call

The conventional wisdom last summer was that the Capitals were missing elements that free agent Joel Ward could provide. So the team outbid more than a dozen suitors on the open market and signed the former Nashville Predators forward to a four-year, $12 million contract.

With money comes expectations, however. And even Ward admits he has put together an uneven first season in Washington. He has scored one goal since Nov. 5. He has six assists since Thanksgiving. A classic third-line forward, the 31-year-old Ward wasn't brought in for his offensive talent. But he can contribute in a myriad of other ways, and even that wasn't happening enough to suit the coaching staff.

That's why Ward played a season-low 6:18 in a Feb. 1 game at Florida. Before Tuesday's rematch against the Panthers, Ward had played less than 10 minutes in six consecutive games. Before that stretch, the last time he had seen less than 10 minutes of ice time when he was healthy was Oct. 15, 2008 -- back when Ward was just trying to establish himself in his first full NHL season.

"[Ward] wasn't playing as well as he should be playing," Caps coach Dale Hunter said. "And [Tuesday] he played with a lot of desperation that he wants to get more ice. When people show you, then you give them more."

Indeed, Ward had one of his best games of the season against Florida. He was a physical presence playing on the third line with center Jeff Halpern and left wing Matt Hendricks and a big reason the Panthers' top line -- Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss -- was held in check. By the end of the game, Florida coach Kevin Dineen had broken up that trio.

"I'm not like an [Alex Ovechkin] or anything, so it's not like I'm stressing to score 50 [goals]," Ward said. "I've just got to play good two-way hockey and try to get on the forecheck but obviously get the puck out of my zone. It's no secret. I don't really put pressure on myself to do that."

Ward spent last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs winning one battle after another in 12 dynamic games for Nashville. His strength along the boards helped wear out the Anaheim Ducks and Vancouver Canucks during postseason series last May and put him in position to score seven goals and six assists. That's just two points shy of his total -- five goals, 10 assists -- for the Caps.

"It's been different. I was coming from a system where I knew the coach. I've been there for three years in the same system and players," Ward said. "I never had a coaching change during the year like that, so it was a little different. But we're still grown men, and that's not a big issue. I've definitely got to find my keep here and see where I fit in, and doing so is just working hard every day to get some positive results."