When a team is winning in the regular season, a coach may decide to leave things like line combinations and defensive pairings intact. But in the playoffs, where every subtle adjustment could give a squad an edge, all bets are off.
For the Capitals’ brief practice session at KCI Saturday morning, there was a switch in the top two lines from Games 1 and 2. Jason Arnott moved up to center the first line, flanked by Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble, while Nicklas Backstrom shifted to the spot between Marco Sturm and Alexander Semin on the second.
It’s a well-known fact that Coach Bruce Boudreau likes to look at various combinations and shift players around, but when asked why he made the switch today, he downplayed the question.
“Actually they just put on the wrong jerseys, so I left them out there for practice. How else can I say it?” Boudreau said. “I could have changed it but I knew we were only doing one drill that had anything to do with it, so I just left them.”
This isn’t the first time Boudreau’s offered the explanation that somehow two players put on the wrong jerseys for a practice, so take it for what it’s worth. We’ll know for sure Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but don’t be surprised if those new alignments are what are used for the start of Game 3.
So why make the switch? The first thing that jumps out is how big of a line the trio of Ovechkin-Arnott-Knuble is physically, and it may be a unit designed to pen the Rangers deep in their own zone and tire defenders out. In a game that New York should come out desperate and fired up for, being able to cycle the puck down low and put extra pressure on the Rangers would only help Washington’s cause.
“Our strength will be below the circles, that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Mike Knuble said. “Arnie’s just real steady with the puck and strong on the puck and — Alex is Alex. I think it’s something where if we can spend a little more time below the circles, be more of a grinding unit like that and a little bit more physical.
“Even if you’re not going to score all the time, if you keep them on the ice and make them play in their own end and lean on them,” he continued, “It makes them tired.”
Boudreau has used Backstrom with Semin at various points over the course of their careers, and it’s a switch he hasn’t been afraid to make in the playoffs previously, either. More recently, though, the trio of Sturm-Backstrom-Semin had a particularly strong outing on Mar. 26 in Montreal, where they combined for both goals in a 2-0 win over the Canadiens.
It was one game, but if that kind of jump for all three players could be recreated in Game 3 the Capitals may take a step closer to putting a stranglehold on this series.