Joel Ward’s teammates were quick to defend him after his late penalty in game five against the Rangers led to the game-tying goal with 6 seconds left and then the game-winning goal in overtime. This isn’t surprising, of course: teammates tend to stick together and Ward is evidently a popular guy. What is surprising is that this defence was even necessary.
Ward’s story fits a neat little narrative: the unlikely hero in one series, the heartbreaking goat in the next. In my mind, his story highlights the problems inherent in making a hero or goat out of any one player in such a fundamentally team sport. If we focus on individual performances, Ward wasn’t the only hero-turned-goat in game five.
Despite the constant insistence that hockey players subsume their individuality for the sake of the team – that they play for the logo on the front rather than the name on the back – there is a constant idolization of the individual, particularly when it comes to the playoffs. We want to believe that certain players can carry a team and can win a game on their own. Hockey fans, for the most part, believe in clutch.
Joel Ward is one of those players, an undrafted, hard-working role player who earned himself a 4-year, $12-million contract with the Washington Capitals this past offseason after scoring 13 points in 12 postseason games for the Nashville Predators. Combined with his 4 points in 6 postseason games the previous year and Ward had evidently convinced the hockey world that he was clutch. He convinced Capitals’ GM George McPhee, at least.
Predictably, Ward didn’t live up to expectations in the regular season, scoring just 18 points, his lowest total since he broke into the league full-time. His role was diminished, usually seeing ice time on the fourth line or none at all as a healthy scratch.
But Ward wasn’t didn’t get a $3-million contract because of his prowess during the regular season. He caught people’s attention with his postseason heroics. So when Ward scored the series-winning goal in game seven of the Capitals’ series against the Boston Bruins, he was really just living up to expectations. But, as Ms. Conduct shared, expectations can be funny things.
Ward has 5 points in the playoffs and just one goal. It’s only the magnitude of that one goal that elevates him to a point where he is the hero and, to a certain extent, the rest of the team just enabled him to reach that greatness.
When it spins the other way, it can turn ugly. With less than 30 seconds remaining in game five on Monday, Ward, while battling for position off a faceoff, swung his stick into the chin of Carl Hagelin, drawing blood and putting the Capitals down a man for 4 minutes. It was, without a doubt, a bad penalty to take and it was a terrible time to take it. It didn’t, however, cost the Capitals the game.
Hockey is a team sport. Games are won and lost as a team. Certainly, individual performances are a part of that, but no game is won or lost by a single individual on their own. If we’re going to tag Ward with the goat moniker, why not Braden Holtby.
Holtby, in fact, fits the same narrative. Another unlikely hero, Holtby’s stellar goaltending and cool, calm demeanour as a rookie won him a lot of fans and helped carry the Capitals to the second round. But he gave up an ugly goal to Anton Stralman midway through the first period of game five to put the Capitals in an early hole. Then, with time running out, he inexplicably abandoned his positioning to ever-so-slowly attempt to freeze the puck, giving Brad Richards enough time to swoop in and tied up the game.
While he made 35 saves in the game, those two goals were ugly, ugly goals. But Holtby wasn’t the target of questions after the game or articles chronicling his transition from hero to goat.
Frankly, it would have been silly to do so. Holtby didn’t lose the Capitals the game. He allowed two goals in regulation and the skaters in front of him couldn’t score three. In fact, the Capitals have seemed completely incapable of extending a one-goal lead into a two-goal lead in the playoffs. So why isn’t Alex Ovechkin, who finished the game with no shots on net, the individual pointed out as costing the Capitals the game?
The Capitals’ penalty killers allowed just 4 powerplay goals against heading into game five, then allowed 2 crucial goals on Ward’s double minor. Why were they not the ones holding their heads in their hands in the locker room, facing the media?
Joel Ward isn’t a goat, but then again, perhaps he wasn’t quite a hero, because hockey isn’t about individuals.