For almost seven weeks, Capitals center Jeff Halpern sat and waited. He played in a game March 23 against Winnipeg and didn’t see the ice again until Wednesday night’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers.
That’s a pretty serious leap. Because as much as Halpern tried to remain part of his team – the one he grew up watching as a District native, the one he began his career with in 1999 fresh out of Princeton – it’s an impossible task. The players on the ice have one focus and the scratches and extras have another and the two don’t coexist at all. You suddenly find yourself detached from your own team.
“You go through cycles. I’d like to say my attitude was great the whole time. But it’s hard watching, especially this time of year,” Halpern said. “You want to be a part of it. The guys have done a great job in the playoffs. The whole team’s played solid. So, yeah, you try to do as much as you can if you do get a call to come in and play, but that’s about it.”
So for 47 days, Halpern stayed on the ice for extra work with the assistant coaches to stay sharp – even though it was clear only an injury would get him back on the ice. Both Jay Beagle and Keith Aucoin were playing well at center on the third and fourth lines. Mathieu Perreault was in the mix, too, getting ice time early in the Boston series in the first round and again when Nicklas Backstrom was suspended.
But all the three-on-three games in the world can’t keep you ready to leap into the middle of a Stanley Cup playoff series. Halpern played 10:23 and took 20 shifts with coach Dale Hunter trusting him with several crucial late faceoffs and Washington nursing a two-goal – and eventually a one-goal – lead in a 2-1 victory.
Halpern can kill penalties, but unfortunately was in the box for four minutes thanks to a high-sticking penalty on John Mitchell that drew blood at 12:05 of the second period. That conjured frightening memories of Monday’s Game 5 when a similar call on Joel Ward led to two New York power-play goals and a crushing 3-2 overtime loss. That penalty came with just 22 seconds left and goalie Henrik Lundqvist pulled. Halpern’s came with Washington up 2-0 after Jason Chimera had just scored minutes earlier.
“I was counting down the clock more than anyone in the building. Yeah, it’s one of those plays where I’m not trying to do it, but it happens,” Halpern said. “Obviously, with what happened in Game 5 your first thought is negative. With a two-goal lead it could have been two bang-bang power play goals. But again [goalie Braden Holtby] and our penalty kill did a great job for that entire four minutes. They did a great job bailing me out.”
With Beagle day-to-day with a lower-body injury – he blocked a shot in Game 5 and was seen in the training room with a massive ice pack on the leg – Halpern could very well find himself back on the ice for Game 7 on Saturday. He told linemates Mike Knuble and Keith Aucoin that he would need a little help early on while getting his legs under him. By the second period, that unit was tilting the ice and almost scored twice on one shift with Aucoin dominating. The faceoff losses late were disappointing for a player who prides himself on that skill. But for Halpern, being on the ice
“I think I’m going to have to take a big exhale right now for the rest of the night and kind of get my head around it,” Halpern said.
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