Theme: “Ease his pain...”
So there he was, almost five minutes into overtime. He had already launched eight shots on goal, four of them on net. He had just stepped onto the ice and made his way to the top of the crease in front of New York Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. As he got there the puck came out to him – right on the tape of his stick, courtesy of Matt Hendricks who fed the puck out from behind the Ranger goal line. With Lundqvist hugging the right post to keep Hendricks from walking out and tucking the puck in, Brouwer had the entire left side of the net beckoning to him…”shoot here.”
Brouwer chipped the puck up and over Lundqvist’s glove as the goalie sprawled across the blue paint of the crease. But the aim was not true. The puck floated past the far post and off the end boards, the Rangers dodging a bullet. The Rangers would win that game in triple-overtime, 2-1, to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final playoff series, a series the Rangers would win in seven games.
Troy Brouwer came to the Capitals in June 2011 from the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade for the Caps’ first round pick in the 2011 draft. He came to the Caps with a reputation for being a tough as nails sort who would hit, chip in some goals, and provide the gritty kind of play that helped the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup in 2010. He was precisely as advertised. In his last two seasons in Chicago, Brouwer averaged 19.5 goals, 38 points, 226 hits, and 41 blocked shots. Last season with the Caps he had 18 goals, 33 points, 247 hits, and 60 blocked shots. He tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (five).
What might not have been expected was that opponents managed to score in significant numbers with Brouwer on the ice. He tied for a team-worst minus-15, and only Brooks Laich was on-ice for more goals scored against among Caps forwards. Caps goaltenders had their worst 5-on-5 save percentage with Brouwer on the ice (.898). The differential of goals scored against/on ice per 60 minutes to goals scored against/off ice per 60 minutes for Brouwer (-0.91) was the worst among the team’s forwards by far (numbers from behindthenet.ca). His 2011-2012 season cleaved into an odd and distressing two-part year. In the 2011 portion of the season Brouwer was 10-8-18, plus-1 in 37 games. However, in the 2012 portion of the season he was 8-7-15, minus-16 in 45 games. Not exactly the finishing kick one would have hoped for.
There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself for a few seconds, to show you what is possible…
Oh my God, you’re from the playoffs! Hey, Terence Mann, Mr. Rink of Dreams …he missed! But it’s not like Mr. Gap-Toothed Goal Scorer didn’t flub his own chance when Anton Stralman couldn’t stick a fork in the puck to settle it down, and then Alex Ovechkin pickpocketed him and shot it off the post with five minutes left in the first OT.
Guys?... we’ll get to Alex Ovechkin another time. This is about Troy Brouwer. Caps fans… they never forget. Anyway…
The Big Question… At this stage of his career, does Troy Brouwer become a Knublian Force?
Up until now, Troy Brouwer has been a perfectly fine complementary player, averaging 17.2 goals per 82 games over a career than has spanned parts of six seasons. Last year’s 18-goal total was right in line with that level of performance. But Brouwer might get a long look as the full-time top-line right winger on this Caps team. It was a spot at which he logged significant minutes last season, but one had the impression the Caps could have or wanted to do better.
At the moment, though, Brouwer might have the inside track to play on the right side on a line with Alex Ovechkin and whichever center – Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro – is penciled into the middle of it. And that presents Brouwer with an opportunity to let him find his inner “Knuble” – to be a guy who does the dirty work of clogging the crease and collecting garbage goals. It was good enough for the departed Mike Knuble to record 53 goals in 148 games in his first two seasons with the Caps.
Here is how that opportunity might be realized. In his last three seasons covering a span of 239 games Brouwer has not had less than a 13.5 percent shooting percentage and has averaged 15.4 percent efficiency over those three seasons on a total of 371 shots. In 82 games last season Brouwer recorded more than two shots in a game only 20 times. He was also sixth among Caps forwards in even-strength and power play ice time. If he gets a bit more ice time and more shooting opportunities in those situations as a product of a more permanent role as the top-line right wing, the shooting efficiency he has demonstrated over the past three years could pay dividends.
In the end…
Joe Juneau, David Steckel, Troy Brouwer. All of them Capitals who had a chance to win playoff games in overtime and didn’t. Juneau missed a penalty shot in the second of what would be four overtimes in a 3-2 loss to the Penguins in the 1996 playoffs. He redeemed himself by scoring the overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres two years later than sent the Caps to their first and, to date, only Stanley Cup final. Steckel missed an open net in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh shortly before the Penguins won a 4-3 decision, but he redeemed himself 48 hours later by scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 6 in Pittsburgh and pushing the series to a seventh game.
Brouwer searches for his redeeming moment. That moment when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself for a few seconds, to show you what is possible.
Projection: 82 games, 19-19-38, minus-2
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America