At the first ever Caps Convention earlier this fall, one of the highlights was watching as distinguished panelists Brooks Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley fielded rapid fire questions from some of the toughest interviewers around – kids.
After hard-hitting queries into their favorite breakfast cereal and how long they’d been playing hockey, one small participant stood up and asked them how many goals they wanted to score in the upcoming season.
"One more than Ovie," Laich joked.
Added Steckel, "probably at least 50 with this line."
And then all eyes were on Bradley. "I'm going to aim high," he said. "I'm going for ten."
It was a classic Matt Bradley joke, told with that modest, self-deprecating style that has endeared him to Capitals' fans since his arrival in DC right after the lockout. And yet with every game it seems more and more likely that his tongue-in-cheek prediction could come true – or even prove to be a vast understatement.
In his five seasons with the Caps, Bradley has performed his duties as one would expect. A good, steady, consistent fourth-liner, he's always been able to add a lot of grit and energy to the lineup while chipping in with the occasional goal or fight (or both).
But this year he seems to have a little more jump, a little more finish - and it shows in almost every area of his stats so far:
After a strong postseason performance that saw him pick up his first two career playoff goals, Bradley has taken the momentum and translated it into a great start to the year. In just a quarter of the games played he's already within one goal and one assist of his entire total for last season; he's also only five goals away from his career best, coming back in 2002-03 when he was a second-year pro with the Sharks.
Bradley's also picked up his game in other areas, becoming a jack of all trades on a team that can use a few. He's shooting more and with better accuracy. He's increased his average ice time - a sure sign of trust from the coaching staff - by almost two minutes over last year. And he's become one of the team's best penalty-killers, and has more points per 60 minutes than either Alexander Semin or Brooks Laich - with considerably less skilled linemates.
But numbers don't always tell the whole tale, and they certainly don't with Bradley. What he brings to the team, on and off the ice, is exactly what you want from your role-players - grit, hockey smarts and the ability to lead by example. It's not hard to see why he's beloved by both teammates and fans alike.
Matt Bradley is never going to challenge Ovechkin for the scoring title or become a heavyweight fighter like Donald Brashear was. Yet none of us will soon forget Bradley's performance against the Rangers the other night. It was Bradley that people were talking about afterward. It was his momentum-changing, face-bloodying scrap against the Rangers' Aaron Voros, followed by his game-winning goal against one of the league's best netminders, that carried the discussion.
It takes a lot to overshadow Alex Ovechkin. In one game, with just two shifts, Matt Bradley did exactly that.