WASHINGTON — It was a formulaic win for the Capitals over the division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday. The Capitals fell into a 2-0 hole early and clawed out of the deficit in a come-from-behind fashion that has become a habit as of late for the NHL’s winningest team.
But all was far from normal in the Verizon Center as Washington celebrated Matt Niskanen’s go-ahead goal in the 3rd period. The Caps’ 46th win of their monumental season marked the first game in 12 seasons that Brooks Laich was absent from the roster.
The Capitals sent their long-time centerman to Toronto late Sunday night as the NHL trade deadline loomed. While the move was a financially beneficial one, freeing up $4.5 million in cap space, it left an irreplaceable hole in the Caps’ locker room and Washington sports culture.
“When you have someone that’s traded, you understand that’s part of the game,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Brooks had a big footprint in this community and…he’s been great to the Washington area.”
After joining the Caps in 2004, Laich became Washington’s most tenured professional athlete, spending nearly 12 seasons with the team. Comparatively, the current player with the next-longest stint on a Washington sports team is Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman at 11 seasons.
But the Laich who General Manager Brian MacLellan was hardpressed to ship to the Maple Leafs was not the same effective role player he had been for most of his career in D.C.
A significant drop-off in Laich’s on-ice performance contributed to his departure to the Maple Leafs.
The centerman’s season goal average took a dive from 14.5 in his first eight seasons (2003-2012) with Washington to 5.3 in the three seasons before this one.
The less frequent scoring reflected in Laich’s average time on ice steadily declining from 17:15 minutes in 2013-14, to 14:43 in 2014-15 and 10:33 this season before being traded. But the career role player’s recent struggles were glaringly disproportionate to the six-year, $27 million contract he signed with the Capitals in 2011.
“It’s always tough to see a good soldier go, but again, it’s part of the game and you have to find a way to continue on here,” defenseman Mike Weber said.
Judging by stats alone, Laich may have seemed out of place alongside his teammate and prolific left wing scorer Alex Ovechkin as the Capitals’ household names. But defenseman Karl Alzner emphasized that the things Laich did behind the scenes were equally as important as his contributions on the ice.
Alzner lauded Laich’s presence in the locker room and said a lot of guys looked up to the veteran. He added Laich would run the warmups, count down the clock before games, and get his teammates hyped to play.
“A lot of guys based their routines off of him, so when he’s not there it feels a little weird,” Alzner said after Tuesday’s game.
T.J. Oshie stepped in and took on Laich’s self-imposed pre-game responsibilities. For the Capitals, keeping Laich’s routine was as a way to remember and celebrate their teammate. It also served as a subtle reminder that Laich’s departure doesn’t change the expectations Trotz or the players have for rest of the season.
“The locker room’s the same,” said Trotz, emphasizing the importance of a seamless transition in the middle of the season. The coach added that the team will welcome Laich’s replacement Daniel Winnik with open arms.
It took just three days after being traded before Laich made his first return to the ice at Verizon Center Wednesday. He sported the white-and-blue uniform of his new club while receiving a standing ovation before the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs.
If nothing else, those fans’ cheers were for the 12-year legacy Laich constructed in Washington as one of the city’s most durable and beloved sports figures.