Theme: “But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
-- Rocky Balboa
Upon completing a four-year career with the St. Cloud State Huskies in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Matt Hendricks found himself winding his way through hockey rinks in North America – Milwaukee, Florida, Lowell, Rochester, Hershey, Providence, Erie. At the age of 28, he had four games of NHL experience and might have been destined to spend the remainder of his career going through any number of small towns on the AHL or ECHL tour. But then in 2009, he stuck for 56 games with the Colorado Avalanche, where he put up nine goals and 16 points while getting less than ten minutes a night on the fourth line. By itself, that might not be enough to get much of a look as Hendricks was embarking on unrestricted free agency.
In fact, he didn’t get much of a look. That is, until September 27, 2011, when he signed a free agent deal with the Caps. Maybe it was that he played in 65 games for the 2006-2007 Hershey Bears under current Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau. Maybe it was that in those 56 games with Colorado last year he not only surprised with nine goals in a fourth line role, but also dropped the mitts ten times. Maybe the Caps just needed some more punch and some more “punch” from the bottom half of the forward lines. Matt Hendricks was given a chance for his “Rocky” moment.
In his first 20 games as a Cap, Hendricks went 3-3-6, plus-1, and two of his goals were of the game-winning variety. He also had four scraps, three of them coming in Caps wins. Hendricks showed himself to be a fireplug of a player who could chip in a timely goal or two along the way. His second two ten-game splits were almost as good, scoring-wise (1-4-5), but he found himself more often on the wrong side of even-strength goal scoring (minus-6), a stretch during which he missed a couple of games to an undisclosed injury. He maintained a consistent scoring pace over the next three ten-games splits (four points in each) before dropping a bit at the end. The complete ten-game splits package looks like this:
Getting 25 points (eighth among forwards) from a player taking the ice for eleven minutes and change a night (12th in ice time among forwards who finished the season with the Caps) over 77 games has to qualify as something of a pleasant surprise. He also got a significant amount of penalty killing time (sixth in time-on-ice/60 minutes among forwards who finished the season with the Caps, according to behindthenet.ca), although among forwards with at least 30 seconds of ice time per 60 minutes, he had the worst goals-against/on ice among Caps forwards playing at least 20 games. That problem showed up at even-strength, too. Among forwards who played at least 20 games, he had the third worst goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes.
One thing he led the Caps in was fighting majors. In fact, his 14 such majors tied for 12th in the league, a rather high ranking for a player who at 6’, 208 pounds would not necessarily be thought of as a heavyweight when it came to such things. In the 13 games in which Hendricks incurred a fighting major (he had two fights in the 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers on December 12th), the Caps were 7-5-1. Not sure whether the fighting made a lot of difference in the context of those games, but Hendricks more than displayed a willingness to stand up for teammates and try to change momentum. You use the tools you have.
Odd Hendricks Fact… Sunday being a day of rest, it was the day of the week on which Hendricks averaged his lowest ice time (11:01/game), but it was also the day of the week on which he averaged the most penalty minutes per game (2.1).
Game to Remember… November 14th, 2010. Nicklas Backstrom might have had two goals in a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, and Michal Neuvirth might have pitched the shutout, but it was Hendricks who got things going, converting a one-handed pass from David Steckel from the deep slot to give the Caps the lead and Hendricks his first goal as a Cap (his first of three game-winning goals on the season). On the play, not only did Hendricks record his first goal of the season, but Steckel and John Erskine recorded their first assists of the season. Hendricks also played a personal high for the season 16:24 in ice time, chipping in four hits, a takeaway, and a blocked shot.
Game to Forget… December 15, 2010. In what would be the Caps’ seventh straight loss in their December eight-game losing streak, Hendricks played only 7:30 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks. He took only nine shifts in the game, none after the 6:42 mark of the third period. He had almost a minute less in even-strength ice time than call-up Andrew Gordon. The key word of that night might have been, like it was for a lot of Caps, “frustration.”
Post Season… Perhaps it was the stakes, perhaps the competition, but Hendricks’ ice time fell off considerably in the playoffs. Only Matt Bradley averaged less than the 9:08 Hendricks skated among forwards. And his production either suffered as a result or didn’t merit more time, depending on whether you’re a chicken or egg fan. He had no points, was a minus-2, and had only one shot on goal over the seven games in which he played, the last one of which he skated only 4:24.
In the end, Hendricks probably gave the Caps a little more than one might have expected from a late training-camp free agent signing. Twenty-five points, 14 fights, and a lot of nicks and bruises (caught in vivid living color on the HBO 24/7 special on the run-up to the Winter Classic). Watching him on a night-to-night basis calls to mind a quote from the movie, “The Untouchables,” uttered by Al Capone…
“I'm gonna tell you something. Somebody messes with me, I'm gonna mess with with him. Somebody steals from me, I'm gonna say you stole. Not talk to him for spitting on the sidewalk. Understand? Now, I have done nothing to harm these people but they are angered with me, so what do they do, doctor up some income tax, for which they have no case. To speak to me like me, no, to harass a peaceful man. I pray to god if I ever had a grievance I'd have a little more self respect. One more thing, you have an all out prize fight, you wait until the fight is over, one guy is left standing. And that's how you know who won.”
Hendricks might not have won them all, and he might have been knocked down from time to time, but he kept moving forward.