In what could be his last run with Capitals, relentless Jay Beagle refuses to yield

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Jay Beagle battles with Tampa’s Ryan Callahan. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman pulled his stick back and then swung it forward, unleashing a powerful slap shot from his 6-foot-6 frame. Washington Capitals center Jay Beagle dove in front of the whizzing puck, absorbing the blow with his backside. Ten seconds later, J.T. Miller’s slapper suffered a similar fate, the frozen rubber bouncing off Beagle’s skate before it could ever reach Washington goaltender Braden Holtby. The Capitals were comfortably ahead by three goals during the third-period power play, but in that moment, Beagle embodied what has perhaps separated this year’s team from past editions: a steadfast, all-in commitment to the little things that become bigger this time of year.

Beagle was met with gloved fist bumps when he returned to Washington’s bench, smiling widely as he took a seat and watched the team he has spent his entire improbable NHL career with take an unexpected two-games-to-none lead in the Eastern Conference finals. Joining Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson and Holtby, Beagle is one of the longest-tenured players in the Capitals’ locker room, and while those other four have become franchise cornerstones with decorated careers, Beagle has entrenched himself in the organization through determination, not skill.

“He puts in twice the effort and twice the work as everyone else,” T.J. Oshie said.

“You know he’s going to be the hardest-working guy on the ice, probably,” Tom Wilson said.

“A guy that is not scared of work. He’s not scared of preparation. He’s not scared of giving his all every day,” Coach Barry Trotz said.

In a sport that’s hard work, Beagle has somehow managed to differentiate himself there, and on a Capitals team with a less-skilled roster than some past years, it’s fitting that Beagle has helped lead the way to a first conference final in 20 years. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Beagle could be in his last run with Washington, and if this is the end, he is going to go out the same way he started a decade ago.

“I never want to forget what got me here and what made me stand out, or what made the organization give me a chance,” Beagle said. “I don’t want to ever sit back and just kind of accept that, ‘Oh, I am now more an established player.’ I don’t forget what got me there.”

For roughly the past four months, Beagle and center Lars Eller have had a scoring competition at practice, a way of pushing each other through a long season. Eller noticed they both started scoring more in games, so he counted that into their season-long statistical totals.

“It’s very close,” he said. “I think he might be up one in practices, but if you take the games into account, I’ll be up a few.”

As Eller posted a career season with 18 goals and 20 assists, Beagle’s production suffered this year — his seven goals are his lowest total since the 2013-14 campaign — in part because of a revolving cast of wingers next to him on the fourth line. But as Beagle created contests to keep his teammates engaged at practices and seemed to have a different player beside him every game, he considered this year his best even though every metric would argue otherwise.

“I feel like I’ve really grown a lot hockey-wise,” he said. “And it’s kind of weird because I’m 32 and I thought the growth period was over, but taking even the playoffs out of it, it’s been the most fun year that I’ve had in a while.”

Beagle enjoyed mentoring young players like Chandler Stephenson and Travis Boyd, and, ironically, it’s their surge, coupled with Eller’s rise, that could make this Beagle’s last season in Washington. In February, Eller got a five-year extension with a $3.5 million average annual value, and if the Capitals intend to re-sign Carlson, a pending unrestricted free agent who is expected to receive north of $7 million per season, then the team will run into salary cap constraints. Replacing Beagle with cheaper, younger players could be a cost-cutting measure.

But Beagle’s Christian faith tells him his winding path to the NHL happened for a reason, and that same faith has eased any concern over his next contract. He was undrafted and then was an unheralded tryout player at a Capitals development camp, competing with more-talented Washington prospects. Beagle parlayed it into an American Hockey League deal, but his chances of becoming an NHL regular from there were slim. He made his Capitals debut in February 2009, and in a salary cap era where bottom-six forwards are largely expendable, Beagle then made himself a valuable, tenured piece because of the effect he has on teammates with his work ethic.

“Probably the most respected guy in our locker room for how he’ll just do anything for the team,” Holtby said.

“When I came in as undrafted and someone that got invited to a development camp, I think I knew that obviously I had to do something special,” Beagle said. “I had to do something that a lot guys maybe aren’t willing to do every day when you’re coming in with a bunch of kids that have been drafted and people I was trying to outwork for jobs. And so, I don’t know, I think I’ve just continued to also make sure that I keep a level head on it and that it’s an absolute blessing to be playing this game.”

Beagle has scored two goals with three assists this postseason, and especially with Backstrom out because of a right hand injury, Beagle’s fourth line has helped Washington continue winning, chipping in a goal in two of the past three games. He is typically one of the first forwards over the boards on a penalty kill. He has built a career with diligence for the details, and as the Capitals have moved within two wins of a Stanley Cup finals berth, the team as a whole has followed suit to make up what it lost in skill and experience during last summer’s roster turnover.

Replacing Beagle would be more challenging, but where he is concerned, he is far from being finished with Washington.

“I’m not looking ahead at all,” Beagle said. “It’s just a matter of the job and the task that needs to be done here, and I don’t want to play anywhere else. I can’t imagine playing with another team. This is my family, and that’s the way I treat it.”

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