BOSTON — The Washington Capitals didn’t sign Joel Ward to produce in the regular season. They signed him in July to a lucrative free agent contract for games like Wednesday’s.
And, right on cue, Ward delivered.
The burly winger backhanded a rebound past Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas 2 minutes 57 seconds into overtime to lift the Capitals to a 2-1 victory in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The goal — Ward’s first with a goalie in the net since Jan. 7 — not only rescued his team’s season, it put a timely exclamation point on what’s been a difficult year for the 31-year-old.
Last month, he watched eight of nine games from the press box as a scratch. Although he was nursing a sore foot for a few of those games, he was healthy enough to play in most. Coach Dale Hunter simply chose not to play Ward, who had scored a career-low six goals in the regular season. His 18 points were also the fewest of his late-starting five-season NHL career.
“For me personally, I thought I may have lost a little bit of the respect of my own teammates being on the outside so much,” Ward said. “I definitely do play for the respect of them. When you’re on the outside it’s a little tough.”
Those days, however, seemed so long ago as he spoke in a jubilant visitors’ dressing room at TD Garden. Ward suddenly was the Capitals’ hero.
Not that anyone should have been surprised.
Ward made a name for himself last spring as a member of the Nashville Predators. In 12 playoff games, he notched seven goals and six assists to help the Predators push the eventual runner-up Vancouver Canucks to six games in the Western Conference semifinals.
His postseason performance made him one of the hottest items on the market last summer — and the Capitals, who were coming off another playoff disappointment, jumped at the opportunity. In fact, General Manager George McPhee acknowledged that he overpaid for Ward because 16 teams were involved in the bidding.
With a flick of the wrist, though, it could be argued that Ward earned his entire $3 million salary in one night.
“I’ve done it this way my whole life,” Ward said. “I’ve always been the underdog. I’ve never been a top guy. But I never doubted myself.”
The decisive play began with Mike Knuble — another unlikely hero — blocking a dump-in from Benoit Pouliot with his shin pad. Knuble quickly collected the puck and raced through the neutral zone and into the Bruins’ end, flanked by Ward.
Knuble shoveled a backhander toward the net and Thomas made a pad save. But the Bruins goalie sent the rebound back in front to a waiting Ward.
“I thought maybe we were due for a [line] change because they were dumping it in,” Ward said. “Then, all of a sudden, there was a blocked shot by Knubs and I knew we had a small window to go up the ice. I just said to myself, ‘Go follow up the play.’”
“I was on the other side,” he continued. “But I knew he was going to carry it to the net. I just wanted to back him up and get a rebound or a puck squirting loose. I got a chance to be there and took a whack at it.”
Ward said he was overcome with emotion when he realized the puck had eluded Thomas.
“Oh man, it’s tough to . . . ” Ward said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “Words can’t really describe it. It was a sense of relief, excitement. It was just unbelievable. The puck was just sitting there. I just took a whack. When it was over, it really hit me when the guys were coming off the bench.”
Knuble lauded Ward for his instincts.
“I knew I was carrying that thing right to the crease and I was going to jam it in myself or something,” said Knuble, who was a healthy scratch 10 times down the stretch, including the regular season finale and the first three games of the playoffs. “But Joel was smart. He didn’t swing by the net. He stopped out in front of the net, picked up the trash.”
In seven tightly-contested games, Ward has three points in the past three games, a stretch that includes assists in Games 5 and 6. That’s two more than Alex Ovechkin during the same span.
But, again, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is Ward’s time of year.