Joel Ward stood by his locker stall, the pack of reporters having moved on to the other side of the room. After trying to find the words to explain the four-minute high-sticking penalty he took with just 22 seconds left in regulation, he was left all alone with his thoughts – the hero of Game 7 in the first round against Boston, the goat in Game 5 of the second round against New York when Brad Richards and Marc Staal both scored on the power play to secure a shocking 3-2 overtime victory over the Capitals on Monday night.
That’s the brutal nature of pro sports. It’s why the celebrations are so intense and the devastating losses so brutal. Earlier, teammate Dennis Wideman approached Ward at his locker and offered words of solace or encouragement. He said his piece, in a voice low enough only the two of them could hear, patted Ward on the backside and then departed. With goalie Braden Holtby answering questions at the other end of the room, Ward, alone again now, half-heartedly packed his gear, shock and sadness still registered on his face. A Capitals equipment manager approached, slapped Ward on the shoulder and quickly took his bag away.
Ward’s own assessment of his critical penalty minutes earlier was stark. There was no escaping his miscue and so he didn’t really try. He was waiting for reporters when the media entered the room and recounted the play like a witness describing a car accident.
“I cost us the game with a terrible play,” Ward said.
A stick came up high on New York forward Carl Hagelin, who was bloodied, and the desperate Rangers had one last chance to tie the game with a 6-on-4 advantage. Richards scored with just under seven seconds left to play. Still watching helplessly from the penalty box in overtime, and with just 19 seconds left on the penalty kill, Staal’s shot beat Holtby and the Madison Square Garden crowd exploded.
There was no blame placed on Ward by his teammates. They were there to celebrate with him after he slapped home the game-winner against Boston in Game 7. They weren’t going to abandon him after a high-stick that could have happened to any one of them.
“That's the way with any sport. One time you do something great, the next time you don't,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It's happened to me a number of times where I've tipped pucks into my own net or done something stupid. I know a game where I've had a goal and assist in the first period and two goals against my own net in one period. It's just nothing you can do about it. There's nothing to be said.”
Ward will try to rebound for Game 6 on Wednesday night at Verizon Center. There is no choice. The season ends if he and the Caps can’t find it within themselves to shake off that devastating penalty and a loss as difficult as any to swallow: Seven seconds from victory only to see it snatched away.
“It’s a game of inches. It happens pretty quick,” Ward said. “We were a few seconds [away from] winning and it turned into an overtime and then a loss just like that. It definitely is. It’s a little mental disturbing, for sure, right now. It's tough to be in that position when you're letting the team down.”
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