Hope For Eminger
Caps defenseman Steve Eminger played in just one of the team’s first 21 games this season. Since Bruce Boudreau took over as Washington’s interim coach last week, Eminger has played in one of three games. Even though he will not be in the lineup for Wednesday’s game with Florida, Eminger finally sees a glimmer of hope for himself. Boudreau has said that he wants all 23 players to play, and wants all 23 to feel like they’re part of the team. After spending much of the first quarter of the season in limbo, that’s music to Eminger’s ears. Playing once or twice a week is far better than playing once a month.
“It’s a chance,” says Eminger, “and I guess that’s what I didn’t get in the first two months was a chance. That’s all that we could ask for. We have eight defense[men] here and everyone has to play. Everyone can contribute. If that’s the role that we’re going to be put into, I don’t think guys are going to complain. Obviously you want to be there every night and you want to be playing every night, but we have healthy bodies that are going to contribute so if that’s going to be the game plan, you’ve just got to be ready and be ready to step in when it’s your chance.”
Eminger played in Monday night’s 3-1 loss to the Sabres. It was just his second game this season and his first in the team’s last nine games. We wondered whether it was harder for him physically or mentally.
“Both,” says the 24-year-old rearguard. “I was talking to people, talking to my dad after the game, and I said, ‘Playing, you don’t know what to expect.’ It might be kind of silly listening to this, but you almost forget what a bodycheck feels like, you almost forget what a one-on-one is going to be like, what a two-on-one is going to be like. You can do it in a practice, but a game is completely different. You get what is referred to as tunnel vision where you just see straight ahead of you and that’s it. I’m not seeing guys on my side and that’s going to come by playing.
“When you’ve played two games in two months, I don’t care if you’re Scott Niedermayer coming back. I think you’re still going to need that time to get adjusted. Hopefully the coaches can bear with me. I know myself that we’re closing in on 30 games and you don’t have that time to have those mistakes and make those mistakes. But I might need some time to get into that groove. Already in practice today after [playing in] this game I felt better already.”
The first of Washington’s three first-round draft choices (12th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Eminger made the Caps in the fall of 2002 as an 18-year-old kid on what was then a pretty good Capitals team. After 17 games with the parent club, the Caps excused Eminger to play in the World Junior Championships. He was then returned to his junior club, the Kitchener Rangers. Eminger helped lead Kitchener to a Memorial Cup championship, often playing 30-35 minutes a night. The book on him was that he would become a solid and steady NHL blueliner for a decade or so.
Eminger split the 2003-04 season between Washington and the club’s AHL Portland affiliate. After a strong start with the Caps in 2005-06, he leveled off and then suffered a bad ankle injury in mid-January. Just as he was hitting his stride again, the season ended. Last season, he was scratched several times, including six consecutive games in February. Washington won only one of those games, and was 2-9-3 in the 14 games in which Eminger did not play last season, regardless of the reason.
This fall, a training camp ankle injury limited him in the preseason and he started the regular season on injured reserve. The Caps started the season with three straight wins, but even after the losses began piling up, Eminger remained out of the lineup. He finally made his 2007-08 debut in Atlanta on Nov. 6, but was right back in the press box then next night and every game since since until Monday.
Hindsight is 20/20 and there will always be a debate about whether the Caps might have done more or might have done things differently with Eminger. You don’t see many 24-year-old former first-rounders being buried by teams that drafted them, especially when that team is at the bottom of the league standings. It can’t be good for a player’s confidence.
“I don’t think it’s a positive thing on your confidence,” he admits, “not playing and feeling that you’re not wanted. It’s a different feeling. It’s a frustrating feeling, because the only thing that you want to do is play and play for the team. The way that I always look at things and look at life is things work out for a reason. You still try to figure out what’s going to evolve around this, why did this happen, what’s going to happen with your career. But like I said, things always happen for a reason and hopefully something positive turns out out of this.
“I have confidence in myself. I know what I can do. When I get in that groove, when I get a shot, when I play games, when I get back into it, I know what I can do. It’s just a matter of — and it seems like I am — getting that shot. With Bruce here, he told us we were all going to play and I guess that’s the shot I need.”
Eminger skated just under 10 minutes against Buffalo. He appeared to be skating well, and he picked up an assist on Washington’s only goal. He was a minus-2 on the night, but about the worst thing you could say about is performance is that he was trying too hard to make an impression. It’s understandable.
“A couple of unlucky plays there,” he reflects. “I guess you can hold back on your first game or you can get involved. I was playing on a lot of adrenaline, I was really excited and I wanted to get after it and get involved.”
He would have been just minus-1, but he parked himself on the bench just as Alex Ovechkin scored. Although he assisted on the goal, Eminger did not get a plus-1 on the play.
“Yeah, I just stepped off,” he says. “[Defense partner John] Erskine and myself just stepped off as he scored.”
Eminger knows he can play better, and he knows the team can play better. Right now, he is happy to be feeling like he is part of the team again and looking forward to what the rest of the season holds.
“[I] definitely feel rejuvenated,” says Eminger. “It does feel like the start of the season to me in a way, because obviously I haven’t really started the season. This feels like a start to me, that’s the way I am looking at it. I woke up today and I felt good, even though I wasn’t in awe of my game [Monday]. But I felt good. I felt back with the team, and back with that hopefully winning attitude. I haven’t won this year, and I want to win.
“When we were losing, I felt bad. I felt bad for the guys. But it didn’t feel like I was really losing. When we won, it didn’t feel like I was winning. It wasn’t like the rotation that we’re going to be in now. I’m not in tomorrow, but when we lose or win, I am still going to feel it. I haven’t had that feeling this year. Getting that feeling, anyone who has been part of a team knows what I am talking about.”