Whole Latta Love

Posted September 26, 2014

The first group of cuts has come and passed. Goaltenders Brandon Anderson and Phoenix Copley were sent to Hershey’s training camp. Defensemen Michal Cajkovsky, Wade Epp, Mike Moore, Garrett Haar, and Erik Burgdoerfer joined them. And forwards Braden Pimm, Stanislav Gailev, Caleb Herbert Joe Diamond, Tim Spencer, Philippe Cornet, Dustin Gazley and Joel Broda joined them in Chocolate Town.

But that wasn’t everyone.  Several players were sent to their junior and European clubs. Jakub Vrana, Christian Djoos and Kevin Elgestal were sent back to Sweden. Vitek Vanecek was sent to the Czech Republic. Miles Koules and Tyler Lewington were sent to their Medicine Hat club. And finally, Madison Bowey was sent back to Kelowna, where he will most likely serve as team captain again.

There are several notable players that haven’t seen much NHL time, if any. But none seem to have taken up the spotlight as much as Michael Latta and Liam O’Brien. How popular were they in the preseason game against the Boston Bruins? So popular that while Ovechkin scored two signature goals, O’Brien earned himself the first star of the game.  O’Brien, who was invited as a free agent, just wants to impress those who are watching, so he can earn himself a spot somewhere in the system.

“That’s what I was trying to do,” O’Brien said. “I’m just trying to open some eyes and have an impact, and just try to take it day by day.”

“I trained pretty hard in the summer. I knew [camp] was coming up, so mentally I was preparing for it [and] physically I was preparing for it, so I just tried to stay really positive with myself and tell myself that I belong and I have the same opportunity as everyone else, so that’s kind of what drives me.”

Latta and O’Brien, and even Chris Brown for that matter, were very busy. Though he was only on the ice for 10:45 minutes, he recorded a fight after a brutal hit in the first period, an assist, and the game tying goal that sent the game to overtime, giving him a “Gordie Howe Hat-Trick.” And Latta? His hard work right in front of the crease allowed O’Brien to feed him the puck behind the net, and Latta muscled the puck to the net. Their hard play earned them critical shifts. In the final two minutes of the game, it wasn’t the top two lines that were sent in, it was O’Brien, Latta and Brown.

“It’s definitely an opportunity for us to go out and prove we can play,” Latta said about the late shift. “Get the momentum back and do our jobs.”

Their hard work is not going unnoticed. There’s a reason why a guy like Latta has already seen three preseason games, and now has two goals on his early 2014-2015 resume. He has a legitimate shot of making the opening night roster, and playing his first full season in the NHL.

“He’s producing,” Head Coach Barry Trotz said of Michael Latta.”He is doing his role well. He has a couple of big goals for us. He’s been pretty good on the face-offs, he’s killing some penalties and he’s physical. That’s what we want Mike to do. He’s got to keep skating, keep moving his feet. That line is doing that, creating a lot of havoc. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They are doing exactly what you want them to do.”

And while O’Brien may be a long shot to make Washington’s roster, it is definitely not out of the question that he could earn himself a contract. He received high praise from both his coach and his teammates.

“He is producing and he’s making a case,” Trotz said of O’Brien. “Good example today. It was a hard game, Boston forechecks really well. They track really well, create gaps. They don’t really give you a whole heck of a lot. You’ve got to earn it. He’s winning battles, fighting for pucks, fighting for people, he’s sticking up for people. He’s done a lot of good things. You always ask people to step up and get noticed, and he’s doing that.”

“[O’Brien’s] unbelievable,” Latta said. “He’s a little pit bull out there. He’s just hard on the puck and he’s fearless. He plays like Volpatti. He’s so hard on the forecheck. Tough. Not many guys are going to want to go in the corner with him.”

The Caps can always use fourth line grinders. If a couple of guys are willing to claw and fight their way for a spot, it will only take pressure off of the top lines. And it may very well earn them a spot on the team.