Although Daniel Winnik's job description is that of a checking line winger and penalty kill specialist, the veteran has the ability to get hot offensively, too.
Case in point: the Capitals’ last three games.
Winnik has two goals, including a clutch tally in Detroit, and a primary assist during that span. Only Nicklas Backstrom has been more productive.
The reason for the sudden uptick? He’s gotten back to what was working for him earlier this season.
“I looked back at my goals and they had all been around the net,” Winnik said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I just put more of a focus lately on getting to the net.”
“Sometimes,” he continued, “I have the habit of being the corner guy, digging out pucks and passing to the point. Sometimes I’m not getting to the net. So when I don’t have the puck and someone else does, I’m just focusing on getting to that blue paint, and hopefully pucks get there.”
Which is exactly how he helped the Caps rally to salvage a standings point against the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon. With five minutes remaining at The Joe and the visitors trailing by a goal, T.J. Oshie carried the puck into the offensive zone as Winnik made a beeline to the net. Petr Mrazek stopped Oshie’s shot, but Winnik outmuscled defenseman Brendan Smith and used his stick to bat the rebound out of midair and into the net to knot the game 2-2.
The goal was Winnik’s eighth of the season but his first away from Verizon Center. It was also his second strike in two games. Against the Ducks, Winnik scored his second shorthanded goal of the season thanks to a great individual effort that began in the Caps’ end. That also goal ended a 17-game drought for Winnik.
Earlier in Anaheim game, Winnik also had a highlight reel setup pass that left Tom Wilson with a layup.
Coach Barry Trotz said he’s not surprised by Winnik’s recent offensive outburst. Trotz said he implored him to think more about producing more points.
“Winnie has a pretty good skill set,” Trotz said. “We’re using him in a defensive role. But the one thing that I told him…I trust you defensively and I think you can be a real reliable player in this year. But there’s more, you can bring some offense. He can keep people off the board and then get those important goals at important times because a lot of time he’s out against offensive lines that don’t think [defense first].”
Although Winnik’s game is on the rise as the season enters the stretch run, this hasn’t been any smoothest campaign for the 10th-year veteran. From opening night until late December, he found himself scratched 10 times as Trotz searched for the right line combinations.
Winnik said he got through that difficult phase with the help of a sports psychologist that he began seeing over the summer and has continued to consult in-season.
“It was hard,” Winnik said of being scratched. “To be honest, if it weren’t for me seeing a sports psychiatrist this summer in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it so well. I give Dr. [Michael] Tompkins a lot of credit for how I handled the situation.”
With 24 games remaining and his role now well-defined, it’s possible Winnik will top his previous career-high of 11 goals in addition to being the Caps' second most important forward on the penalty kill. But as a veteran on a team with championship aspirations, he says he's focused on making sure the group is playing the right way down the stretch.
“I hope we’re not just looking at it as, ‘Hey let’s just get through these last 24 games,’” said Winnik, who turns 32 next month. “That’s what it was like last year when I got here [via trade]. There was such a big cushion that there weren’t many meaningful games. This year, it’s a lot tighter and more teams are in the playoff race, so we’re going have harder games to play in. Hopefully that—and learning from last year—will helps us.”