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Former teammates Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer battling with Stanley Cup trip on the line

ST. LOUIS -- The symmetry is hard to ignore.

On the one hand, you've got another second-round exit by the Washington Capitals. On the other, two of their former players are playing sizeable roles in getting two different franchises over historic playoff hiccups.

Oh, I don't think it's lost on Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer at all, even if they felt for some buddies on their former team.

"The Caps ran into a really good team in Pittsburgh," Brouwer said Monday at Scottrade Center. "There's no bad teams left. Talking to a couple of guys in the [Capitals] organization, they hadn't played too many meaningful games down the stretch and maybe that was something that hurt them. While for both [the Blues] and Joel [and the Sharks], we've been fighting hard right to the end, so we were in playoff mode right when the playoffs started and even before the playoffs started."

You won't get Ward or Brouwer to say anything negative about the Caps; both enjoyed their four years with them too much for that. But I'm guessing deep down there's a little wry smile hidden somewhere in the fact they're still playing and the Caps are not, Ward having to go elsewhere in free agency last summer to find the contract that was right for him with the San Jose Sharks and Brouwer getting traded to the St. Louis Blues for T.J. Oshie.

"I watched some of their games over the course of the year. When you're in the Pacific time zone, you get the chance to watch the earlier games on the East Coast," Ward said Sunday, on the eve of the Western Conference finals. "I've got good friends over there -- you know I was pulling for them, for sure. There are guys there that were good teammates on the ice but also great guys off of it. It's unfortunate for them to get bounced. It's just the learning curve again. It's a hard, hard league. A lot of parity. We're in a fortunate position here now and trying to capitalize on it."

One of these two guys is headed to the Stanley Cup finals. It's a place where many believed the Caps would finally land this year after a 120-point season and a Presidents' Trophy. But they ran into a buzz saw in the Pittsburgh Penguins and now are left to contemplate again when and if they'll figure it out.

In the meantime, Ward and Brouwer -- who face each other in Game 2 on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET -- have had big playoff moments for their new teams.

It's exactly what Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had in mind when he traded the very popular Oshie to Washington last summer for Brouwer, a player whose more rugged, sandpaper style would help St. Louis come playoff time.

"When I got traded, Doug told me my season was going to be [judged on] how well I contributed and helped the team in the playoffs," said Brouwer, who has 10 points (5-5) in 15 playoff games and has scored in both Game 7s his team has played. "So far it's been a successful season for me."

That Oshie-for-Brouwer trade has been dissected all season. Brouwer's Game 7 heroics against the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round was followed a few days later by Oshie's Game 1 hat trick against the Penguins.

In the end, they are different types of players, and Brouwer came to terms with that deal.

"I completely understand the business aspect of it," said Brouwer, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. "I was pretty upset when I got traded just because I had such great friends -- not just on the team, but in the neighborhood. Our community was great. My family loved being in Washington, we were comfortable there. But I understand they made a hockey trade. They're going to happen. I didn't see it coming at the time, but looking back, they were looking for a player to play with [Alex] Ovechkin and [Nicklas] Backstrom, a different kind of player, and I think Osh did an unbelievable job for that team this year. But it's been a good move for me, coming to a team that plays the style of play that I love playing. So I was able to fit in here and find a good spot, a good role early on."

Ward's fit with the Sharks has been just as seamless: He's a veteran, two-way player who can play up and down the lineup and be counted on.

Now two pals stand in each other's way of a trip to the Cup finals. They communicated before the puck dropped in this series.

"He sent me a note saying, 'Good luck,'" said Ward, smiling. "It's kind of my first time really playing against somebody that, I mean ... I had a chance to play with him four years straight and consider him a good buddy. During the regular season, if we're playing each other, we'll go for dinner or whatnot. But now, it's a little different. We're all here to compete, we're all here for the same reason.

"Obviously, he's not going to let up on me as much as I asked him to. But that's just the way it goes."

Brouwer, who won a Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010, played against some old pals in Chicago in the opening round, so he's used to being able to put friendships on hold for two weeks.

"Me and Wardo, we still talk quite a bit," said Brouwer. "My wife and his girlfriend chat all the time. It's always difficult going up against old friends. But you have to put that aside and know it's business. It's always got a weird feeling to it when you play old teammates and really good friends. As the series goes on, we'll see a lot more of each other, and I'm sure there will be a couple of more battles, but it's always a good time."

Odds are both Ward, 35, and Brouwer, 30, will have a goal or two in this series that will influence the final result.

"You look at Wardo's playoff track record, he's always been able to be a great producer and a guy everyone leans on come playoff time," said Brouwer. "He was phenomenal for us three years in the playoffs in Washington. I like to think as myself as a good playoff player as well. We were both brought in to our respective teams to try and help further our playoff runs. It seems both of us have had a good impact on the teams we're on now."

The former Caps can taste it. It's that close.

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