LANDOVER -- The Washington Capitals are in their element when they finish their checks and play in-your-face defense. It was that kind of play in Game 3 that gave the Caps a 2-1 lead in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It is also that kind of game that suits rookie Kevin Kaminski.
In Game 3, Kaminski, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound center whose nickname is "Killer," pulled the Penguins' Troy Murray around the ice like a rag doll before getting into a major brouhaha that wound up with the Washington center getting the last penalty of the night in a game in which the Caps and Pittsburgh produced 122 penalty minutes.
The top half of Kaminski's uniform -- not for the first time -- followed him to the locker room in the hands of an off-ice assistant.
"Kevin has grit and determination," said Caps captain Dale Hunter, who is also known for having some grit. "He takes the other team off their game. He gives us a big lift with the way he plays. He hits people hard, and Pittsburgh is aware of it.
"They know he's out there and that they're going to get hit and it makes them think. He's great at it. Coming off the bench, some guys would whine, 'Oh, [my] legs are stiff.' But he comes out flying and it picks us up.
"He's a tough guy, all right. He's a little guy, but he fights big and hits big."
In fact, he is kind of like the Caps themselves. They, too, are relatively small compared with the Penguins. And, like the Caps, Kaminski has to fight for every bit of respect he gets.
Kaminski's face reflects the toughness.
"Geez, there is no way you're going over every scar on his face," said goalie Olie Kolzig, who shares a house with Kaminski. "You're going to be here all day."
Kaminski, a 26-year-old from Churchbridge, Saskatchewan, laughed, but started the facial tour.
"This one," he said, pointing to his chin, "came from baseball cleats. It was during a practice game for the Churchbridge Athletics, a ball up the middle. I was playing short and another guy was playing second and we just collided. I fell down and he stepped on my face."
Under his left eye is a souvenir from his first year in the American Hockey League. On his right cheekbone is a scar from a fight in Syracuse earlier this year. On his forehead is a jagged red line that trails down toward the bridge of his nose, a present from the New York Rangers' Jay Wells this season.
And what about that bump over his left eye?
"That's from me," said Kolzig happily.
"Yes, it is," said Kaminski.
"I suckered him," said Kolzig. "He wasn't doing his chores. The dishes were all over the place. So I hit him."
In Churchbridge, Kaminski's mother, Vicki, paints a different picture. "He's a very lovable person," she said. "But he's very different on the ice and it still takes getting used to. It's hard for me to watch him, and yet I can't look away."
She recalled how neighborhood children still talk about the days when Kaminski was their baby sitter.
"They just love him," she said. "He wouldn't just read a book when he took care of them. He'd get down on the floor and play."
Even now, Kaminski is one of the most willing players to visit Children's Hospital.
The way Kaminski plays is the way the Caps played Game 3 and hope to play Game 4 and the game after that. It is a tight-checking game and coach Jim Schoenfeld said it is not a hard game for his team to play.
"We're physically, mentally and emotionally conditioned to play this kind of high-tempo hockey," said Schoenfeld. "We're not hitting for the sake of hitting.
"We're hitting for two reasons: One, we want to eliminate their progress and the second is to create turnovers when we hit them in the offensive zone, which affords us scoring opportunities.
"And now that we've got everybody doing what Killer and Chief [Craig Berube] have done all season, I think it enhances their role because you feed off of your big, tough guys and sometimes just having a Berube and a Kaminski to put on the ice, it helps our bench sit a little taller and the other team's bench sit a little less tall. That's what their presence does."
Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins
Site: USAir Arena,Landover
TV/Radio: HTS/WMAL (630 AM)
Outlook: The Penguins, down 2-1 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, will start Tom Barrasso in goal; Washington will stick with Jim Carey. Penguins D Chris Tamer (fractured ankle) is out and Len Barrie (bruised sternum) is day-to-day. Caps C Dave Poulin (separated right shoulder) and D Mark Tinordi (sprained knee) are out.