By Phil Stacey
It's one thing to be in a fight with three other players for the last roster spot on a National Hockey League club.
It's quite another thing, said Chris Bourque, when two of those three players are good friends of yours.
That's the situation that the 25-year-old Bourque finds himself in as he battles to make the Washington Capitals' opening night roster. After a year away from North American hockey, the Boxford native is back and doing everything within his power to stick in the NHL for good.
"It's pretty tight competition," said Bourque, a winger with 33 games of NHL experience, including 13 with the Caps. "It's a good, fun competition, but at the same time you're fighting for the last spot in camp.
"The fact that I'm going against a couple of buddies that I've played with in Hershey (the Capitals' minor league affiliate in Pennsylvania) just adds another element to it. You hope your friend does well — but at the same time, you're trying to get that spot instead of him."
In an exhibition game Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bourque skated with those two friends who are also battling for that elusive roster spot: Mathieu Perreault and Cody Eakin. Together they combined for six points, with Bourque assisting on all three Washington goals in a 3-1 win.
Bourque and Perreault spent much of two seasons skating on a line together for the Hershey Bears, guiding the team to a pair of Calder Cup championships. "We have good chemistry together," Bourque said. He also spent time skating with Eakin in the AHL.
Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau told The Washington Post after Monday's contest that the entire line played well, did their assignments as asked and were responsible defensively.
"We're just waiting for somebody to say, 'It's mine and somebody take it away from me,'â" Boudreau told The Post earlier this week. "It's out there. Guys know it's out there."
Mattias Sjogren, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound center from Sweden who isn't as strong of a skater as the other three, is also in the mix to make the big club.
A scoring star in the minors, Bourque isn't big by NHL standards (5-foot-8, 181 pounds) but he's an explosive skater who can play either wing. With a one-year contract this season, he'd have to clear waivers if Washington decides to send him back to the minors.
The oldest son of Hall of Famer and former Bruins captain Raymond Bourque, he acknowledged that it's tough to say at this point who, if anyone, has the upper hand in the race for the open spot. Much of it depends, he said, on which type of forward Boudreau is looking for to fill a particular role on the third or fourth line.
"I think any choice they make will be good; we've got a bunch of good players in this organization," said Bourque, who has a goal and three assists in his young NHL career.
A year ago, Bourque started off playing for Mytishchi Atlant of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, but left after 10 weeks to join HC Lugano of the Swiss Elite League. There, had 14 goals and 33 points in 39 games while getting to travel Europe with his now-wife, Kimberly McManus.
"It was a breath of fresh air," he said of playing in Europe. "The hockey was good and the country was incredible.
"But I'd see the Capitals on 24/7 on HBO (as they prepared for their Winter Classic game against the Pittsburgh Penguins), think about how I was part of Washington's organization for six years, and I'd look at the boxscores from back home, see guys I knew and had played against getting their chance in the NHL ... it's tough to cut that cord."
Yesterday at practice, Bourque skated with Alex Ovechkin and center Marcus Johansson; having already played in three of the team's four exhibition games thus far, he doesn't figure to play in tonight's contest against the Nashville Predators. He does figure to suit up in the Capitals' final two exhibition games at home Friday (vs. Buffalo) and Sunday (vs. Chicago).
"Wherever I play this year, I'm going to give it my all and play to the best of my abilities," said Bourque. "I'm hoping to have a strong season, help my team win and put up as many points as I can. Hopefully, that's in the NHL."