With less than six minutes remaining in Saturday's Game 4, Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green changed the course of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He took a pass from Dennis Wideman during a Capitals power play, recognized the time he had and utilized it by crushing a huge slap shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist.
The Capitals won 3-2, evening the series at two games, and Green provided a glimpse of the player who was once the most electrifying defenseman in the game. It was his first point against the Rangers and his second goal in 11 playoff games. Before scoring against Boston in Game 6 of the first round, Green hadn't scored since October. Injuries cut the heart out of Green's regular season again, as he played in only 32 games after seeing just 49 the season before.
He had to find his game post-groin surgery in the second half of the season while learning a new system under a new coach. With that coach came new expectations.
"I used to be the guy to go up the ice and create offense from the back end, and we don't play that way as much," Green said when we chatted last week. "It's not going to be as much points from the D-men unless it's on the power play."
Hunter's message when Green returned? "Play simple and that's that," the coach said to his blueliner.
That simple game doesn't produce the kind of eye-popping numbers that earn huge contracts when negotiations heat up. Green's goal against the Bruins was his first with Hunter behind the bench. Under Bruce Boudreau, Green was a two-time Norris finalist and had two consecutive 70-plus point seasons. He was paid like it. He is in the final year of a contract that averaged $5.25 million per season and he's slated to become a restricted free agent July 1.
That $5 million salary is a very reasonable number for someone contending for a Norris Trophy, but what's a reasonable expectation from Green now?
He wasn't good during the regular season, but there were plenty of explanations.
"I started off great, I think I had a point a game. Then I got hurt and things have been a little different," he said. "It's taken me some time to adjust. For any player, nobody comes back and they're outstanding."
So the evaluation has to happen now. If the Capitals keep winning and Green keeps contributing, then you find a way to keep him. If it's another second-round knockout, he's a luxury you let walk unless he's willing to take a serious cut in pay. He's a restricted free agent but GM George McPhee has to give him a $5 million qualifying offer to keep his rights. He's not a $5 million defenseman in his current form.
If he evolves his game to work under a defensive-minded system like Hunter's, he proves his versatility and adaptability. Every playoff shift directly impacts his worth, which is an additional pressure few are dealing with during this postseason. I asked him if it changed his approach to the games or impacted the way he plays.
"I just play the game for the team and it's all I can do," he said. "I don't worry about it too much, to be honest."
"Yeah," he answered. "Everything happens for a reason. It falls into place and that's that."
If this Hunter mentality is the future of the Capitals, and with their success there's no reason to think it shouldn't be, Green's game might be better suited elsewhere. Boudreau would no doubt welcome him in Anaheim, and the Ducks could use insurance for Lubomir Visnovsky if Visnovsky decides to play out of the final season of his contract worth $5.6 million next year. Or if the Ducks decide to trade him this summer. Boudreau also sees a similarity between Green and talented young Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler.
"Both young, both offensively gifted. Both came in with defensive liabilities and had to learn on the go," Boudreau said during a January phone interview. "Both are great skaters and I think Cam is going to be a star in this league. Mike is a star in this league."
He hasn't been one this season, but that star flashed again over the weekend. He's making the adjustment and finding a way to contribute. He also sees it being easier with a clean slate next season.
"Yeah. Fresh start next season after we win the Cup," Green said. "Things will be good."
Predators must solve Smith
I spoke with Predators forward Patric Hornqvist on Sunday night for an ESPN the Magazine feature we're working on and we chatted for a couple minutes on the road ahead for Nashville. The Predators enter tonight's game against Phoenix down 3-1, but Hornqvist didn't sound like a player defeated.
"We know exactly what we have to do to win against the Phoenix Coyotes," Hornqvist said. "They play really strong defensively. They always seem to push us to the outside."
The problem is that the Predators may know how they need to play and it still may not matter. Hornqvist said he had plenty of good chances against goalie Mike Smith, but Smith isn't giving the Predators anything. Nashville desperately wants to find a way to get a lead, something they were able to do against Detroit, but Smith is making it nearly impossible.
"Even last game, we played really good. I think they have a better goalie than Detroit. He's been unbelievable. He's been another Peks," Hornqvist said, referring to the nickname of his own goalie, Pekka Rinne. "It's tough to score. He's in the zone right now."
The Coyotes struggled with the distraction that came with relocation rumors during the playoffs last season. Now, we could be finding out if the opposite is true, if they'll get a boost with news they're staying in Phoenix.
If everything goes well in a series of meetings this afternoon, the league could be announcing a deal with Greg Jamison's group that would keep the team in Glendale. It could lead to an environment at Jobing.com Arena unlike the Coyotes have ever seen in Phoenix. You'd have a home crowd anticipating the elimination of their team's opponent and a trip to the Western Conference finals armed with the news that their team isn't going anywhere.
It wouldn't be an easy place to try to keep the season alive, but Hornqvist said it's already been a fun building in which to play.
"It's been great. They've sold out every playoff game," he said. "It's almost half empty during the regular season. The fans have really stepped up."