The reason of their appreciation was twofold: Ward, of course, scored the series-clinching goal against the Boston Bruins in overtime of Game 7; he also was the target of a torrent of racist tweets from a handful of hate-filled fans in the hours afterward.
“For me, it’s pretty simple: I don’t let it bother me at all,” Ward said following practice. “It’s a few people that made a couple of terrible comments. What can you do?”
“I know what I signed up for,” he added. “I’m a black guy playing a predominantly white sport. It just comes with the territory. I would be naive or foolish to believe or think that it doesn’t exist. It’s part of life.”
Ward addressed the matter on a day that was otherwise light and upbeat as the Capitals prepared for their semifinal playoff series against the New York Rangers, the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Game 1 is Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
If there was one word that summed up Washington’s mood it was confidence — something that hasn’t always been the team’s hallmark this season. After eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions, however, it’s in no short supply these days.
“When I got called up, [the confidence] was building,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “You could see guys were starting to creep out of the doubts and whatnot that they’ve had before. It’s definitely growing. Hopefully it keeps growing. We’re at a good stage right now where we’re a confident group.”
They also were careful to give respect to the Rangers, an opponent they’re meeting in the playoffs for the second straight season and third time in four years. But there’s a twist. The Capitals under Coach Dale Hunter have adopted an opportunistic, defense-first, shot-blocking style that’s not unlike the Rangers’.
“We know that the Rangers won our conference and they were the top team all year,” Hunter said. “They play hard, they block shots, they’ve got good skill up front, a good goalie and their [defensemen] are strong. So we’ll have to be at our best.”
If the Capitals are going to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1998, they must not stray from Hunter’s game plan. It also wouldn’t hurt to get meaningful contributions in these areas as well:
●Between the pipes. On Friday, New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy. Holtby won’t need to outduel King Henrik, but the rookie will likely need to match him, save for save.
Against the Bruins, Holtby had nights when he looked unbeatable (such as Game 1). He also had nights where he looked his age (Games 3 and 6). Lundqvist, meantime, limited the Senators to two or fewer goals in five of the series’ seven games. The 30-year-old Swede also had a shutout.