There’s little doubt what team Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward credits for his big break at the NHL level, and tonight he returned to where things began in his team’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators.
Ward made just his second return to Nashville since the three years he spent with the Predators from 2008-2011.
But unfortunately for a Capitals squad just one point out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, Washington went cold in the shootout and settled for one point.
“It’s definitely emotional for sure coming back. I got to see a lot of familiar faces,” Ward said. “Certainly a different experience on this side; it just stinks we came up on the short side of things tonight.”
A game in the Music City is particularly meaningful to the 33-year-old, because it was the Predators that gave Ward his first real shot at making it in the big leagues.
“Joel Ward is the prototypical Nashville Predator, if you will; he just kind of took the long road to get here,” Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. “Ward was good in juniors, went to a Canadian university, back to the minors and then finally found his way to our team. What I try to do with players is keep an open mind. Good players get to the NHL when they’re ready, not when we want them to. And Joel Ward just took a longer road. He was just supposed to be a depth guy for us, and then I started watching him real close and he was making all the right plays in practice. He was the guy winning the battles and driving his line.”
Having the best statistical season of his career this campaign, Ward was unable to add to his 22 goals or 21 assists (both career highs) tonight. Nashville goaltender Carter Hutton made a cross-crease save on Ward’s one-timer late in the second period, for example.
Instead, Washington forward Troy Brouwer and Predators winger Patric Hornqivst claimed the spotlight for a good portion of the contest. Both players lit the lamp twice and were their respective team’s only offense through two periods.
“Ward’s having a terrific year for them. He’s hard on the wall, you can play him on the power play, penalty kill and in the final minutes of the game–winning or losing,” said Trotz. “He’s turned himself into really good pro. We found him because we just kept our eyes open. Every year we try to find one of those guys, kind of like what Rich Clune is for us now.”
An exchange of goals in the third period, then a scoreless overtime and it was Nashville picking up just their second win in 10 tries in the shootout.
“There aren’t enough games left to be too positive about only getting one point,” Capitals blueliner John Carlson said. “Yeah, it’s one point, but it’s only going to make our road harder. I thought we were just a little bit lackadaisical here and there throughout the game.”
Now with two homecomings to the Music City since he left in 2011, Ward has seen both spoiled by the Predators. Despite the lack of points for the Capitals, however, the forward who “took a little longer” to make it to the NHL appreciates the chance to play against his former club.
“Even though it’s been three years, it’s something that I still think about. Nashville is where it all started for me really,” Ward said.