By Sean Hartnett
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Joel Ward is exactly the type of player who rises to the occasion under the most intense playoff spotlight. He did in Nashville and in Washington. Now, he’s providing clutch heroics for the San Jose Sharks on a run that has taken them to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance.
The Sharks are 4-0 when Ward scores a goal this postseason. His latest came at 8:48 of the third period when he unleashed a powerful slapshot past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray, forcing overtime. Joonas Donskoi would eventually score the overtime winner, as the Sharks took a bite of out the Penguins on home ice. San Jose trails the series 2-1 heading into Monday’s Game 4.
“I just had a transition rush, three on two,” Ward said. “Just going to hold on to it for a split second. Just kind of saw a lane, just buried the head and just took a slapper. Fortunate to go in.
“It’s always a good feeling to help contribute for your squad,” he continued. Obviously, you’re in the moment, and you’re just wanting to score and help your team win. Just knowing here we’re at the Stanley Cup Finals, you just want to help, hopefully continue on this process, build on the next game, try to contribute again. Try not to dwell or think about it too much. You know, it was good to win. Just looking to duplicate that next game.”
Ward has now collected six points (five goals, one assist) in his last five games. Four of his seven playoff goals have come in the third period and three of seven have been game-tying or game-winning.
“Wardo’s been a big-game player for us all year,” Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer said following the victory. “A big goal.”
Most of his goals come through sheer determination and hulking strength. He will use his 226-pound frame to position himself in high-traffic areas and has a knack for scoring garbage goals. Over 596 career regular season games, he’s an 0.44 points-per-game contributor. He takes it to another level during the playoffs, as his points-per-game rises to 0.65.
“I’ve watched other guys and always tried to emulate, listen to their quotes,” Ward said. “I got one from Paul Pierce. I watched him in the playoffs the last couple seasons. People always knocked him down a little bit in the regular season, but in the playoffs he always stepped up. Just athletes like that that step up at different times, I try to pick up little things. I just visualize, think going out there and having fun. It’s just fun. Just enjoying the moment. I think the atmosphere of the games and the crowds, all that really speaks for itself.”
During the Washington Capitals’ season-ending news conference, general manager Brian MacLellan admitted losing Ward during the 2015 offseason was a blow to their playoff hopes.
“I mean, you know, we miss Ward,” MacLellan told reporters. “Joel Ward — he’s the kind of guy we needed in the playoffs. You know, you make changes, and he’s a guy that we wanted back and we didn’t get back.”
Ward became an unrestricted free agent last summer and signed a three-year, $9.75 million contract to join the Sharks, a talent-rich team that struggled annually to get over the hump into the Stanley Cup Final. San Jose has always possessed an array of big-name players. What they needed was a dependable, lunch pail type of character like Ward to give them a little more tenacity along the boards and a nose for converting second-chance efforts around the crease.
There isn’t too much flash to Ward’s game. He’s just the kind of glue player every team needs if they want to still be competing for Lord Stanley this time of year. Call him “Big-Game Joel.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey