Caps' Steckel's stock soars in Game 1

| Monday, May 4, 2009

WASHINGTON — Despite all of the hype surrounding the star power in this second-round playoff series between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals, an unsung hero has already emerged.

Often overlooked but never unappreciated by his coaches and teammates, Capitals center David Steckel was worth watching in Washington's 3-2 victory in Game 1.

"He's an unsung player because he doesn't get the goals and the points, but I thought he was stellar (Saturday)," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Much like center Jordan Staal can do for the Penguins, Steckel has the ability to change games. It may not be with big goals or big numbers, but the third-liner's gritty, versatile play at times puts him in a position to be the x-factor.

In fact, Staal believes he and Steckel are comparable components to their respective teams.

"Yeah," Staal said. "He's a big kid. He's strong. He chips in offensively. He's solid, and he does the right things out there."

Saturday's game was a prime example. Steckel was assigned the arduous task of containing Sidney Crosby, the NHL's third-leading scorer. Crosby did score an early goal, but Steckel watched from the bench. Crosby was a bit quieter under Steckel's watch.

"(Steckel has) been in this situation before as far as having to play against other team's best players in playoff-type situations," Boudreau said. "He rises to that occasion. He's a good player."

Steckel scored Washington's first goal, but that's not why he had the honor of donning the red hard hat — awarded to the hardest-working Capital after each victory — during postgame interviews.

In 19:11 of ice time, Steckel finished with two hits, four takeaways and an 11-6 record — including 6 of 7 in the third period — on faceoffs.

His most critical victory in the circle came with 31.8 seconds remaining and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench to give the Penguins a man advantage. Steckel won the defensive-zone faceoff against Crosby to seal the win and help the Capitals take a 1-0 advantage in the series.

"For me personally, I think most of (the faceoffs) were on the left side, so it was a little bit stronger for me on my backhand," he said. "I know I took a couple there at the end of the game, and they were very important."

It was no coincidence that Steckel was on the ice during the final minute of a game in which the Capitals held a tenuous one-goal lead. Boudreau knows that Steckel tends to deliver in pressure situations.

"He knows how to elevate his game," Boudreau said. "He's a big-game guy."

Boudreau would know. He coached Steckel and the AHL's Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup championship in 2006. Steckel was a key factor that season: He scored 10 postseason goals after recording just 14 in 74 regular-season contests. The Bears returned to the title game the next season, but lost.

"He's the kind of guy you need if you want to be successful ... the stars are great, but if you don't have 12 forwards and six defensemen at least, you're not going to win the big prize," Boudreau said.

Just because Steckel isn't one of the big names — such as Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, to name a few — that doesn't mean he can't play with them.

He did a nice job of limiting the Penguins' captain, especially late in the game. Steckel outperformed Crosby in the circle when he beat him on five third-period faceoffs, including the final puck drop.

"Just for faceoffs at the end, like the big important faceoff with 30 seconds, you can put him out there," Boudreau said. "And he's a big-bodied guy. And quite frankly, I thought he could have had two or three (goals)."

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