WASHINGTON – Jay Beagle was promoted to the Capitals’ third line Tuesday and given the assignment of shutting down Hurricanes leading scorer Eric Staal. No easy task.
But Beagle responded by playing a career high 16 minutes and 40 seconds and scoring his first goal of the season.
Beagle also kept Staal from finding the back of the net and frustrated the Hurricanes No.1 center for much of the night.
“Staal didn’t want to play with him,” said coach Dale Hunter. “He was mad at him. You could see him kind of hitting him all the time because he works so darn hard out there and for a scorer like Staal, it’s annoying to have [Beagle] all over him all the time.”
Staal managed to extend his point streak to a season high 12 games thanks to a secondary assist on a Jiri Tlusty goal, but Beagle’s line wasn’t on the ice to prevent it.
It was one of the rare shifts that Staal could enjoy without Beagle hovering around him, providing those friendly reminders that he was nearby.
“I’ve kind of been bred to do that,” Beagle said. “Down in Hershey for three or four years, that was my role. Third line center and with [other teams’] top guys, I would just annoy them and make it hard on them to get points and create offense.”
Beagle is expected to center Washington’s third line again Thursday and the task doesn’t get any easier with a visit from Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stamkos leads the NHL with 48 goals and is tied with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin with a league best 81 points.
“If I’m called on to play against him it’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be one that’s fun and one that I’ll be geared up for and ready to go,” Beagle said. “Those challenges, as a player, are what you want. You want to play a major role on a team and if I get the chance to play against him, I’ve got to be ready and I’ll have to make the most of it and do the job.”
Beagle was joined by Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer on the third line Tuesday and the trio was often joined by defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson to form a five man unit against Carolina’s No.1 trio.
All five will likely see plenty of time against Stamkos Thursday.
“I think he’s upped his game to not just that superstar status, but that elite [status], like when [Alex Ovechkin] had 65 goals,” said Alzner, teammates with Stamkos at the 2008 World Junior Hockey Championships. “He’s just one of those guys, there’s a reason why he’s there. He’s hard to stop.”
Alzner went on to compare Stamkos to a “game breaker on a video game” for his knack at scoring big goals. The 22-year-old Stamkos leads the NHL with ten game-winning goals this season.
“He’s a smart player to begin with,” said Hunter, who coached against Stamkos in the Ontario Hockey League from 2006-08. “He can pass and shoot. Even for goalies, he’s got almost 50 goals but he also is a good passer.”
Stamkos has an extremely quick release and a patented one-timer from the left faceoff circle that is particularly effective with open ice on a power play.
If the Caps are to end Stamkos’ four-game goal scoring streak and put a dent in his bid to become the NHL’s first 50-goal scorer of the season, they’ll have to keep a close eye on No.91 in white and limit his time and space.
“You’ve got to be on top of him all the time,” Beagle said, “and just make it a really tough game for him to play. If you’re hounding him constantly, he’ll get frustrated hopefully and you just make it tough on him. That’s all you can do.”
Tampa Bay has won four of five games and seven of their last ten games overall to climb back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Lightning are in 11th place with 68 points four behind eighth place Winnipeg and two behind ninth place Washington.
It’s no coincidence that as the Lightning have played some of their best hockey of the season, so too has Stamkos. Stamkos has 11 goals and 19 points in his last 10 games.
“He’s tricky and he’s always around the net,” Beagle explained. “He works hard and for a skilled guy to work that hard it makes it a lot harder to play against him. He’s a great player and I look forward to the challenge if called upon to do it.”
Catch the Capitals and Lightning on Thursday at 7pm. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 6:45 on Federal News Radio, WFED 1500AM and online at www.wfed.com.