When the Capitals faced Pittsburgh back on Jan. 22 without both Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson in the lineup it resulted in quite a bit of line juggling by Coach Dale Hunter.
One of the combinations that surfaced in that contest and stuck once Alex Ovechkin was saddled with a three-game suspension was a unit of Matt Hendricks, Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer.
They had a bit of a rough start as a group – both of the Penguins’ even strength goals in their 4-3 overtime win against Washington that day came against the unit – but after four games together they’ve found some cohesion.
“We may not have the most offensive talent on our line but all three guys finish their checks and work hard,” Brouwer said. “We’re creating turnovers and getting offensive chances as a result of it. I like where our line is trending right now, especially being paired against top lines. I think we’re doing a good job.”
In back-to-back games against the Lightning and Panthers earlier this week the line was Washington’s best. They all can play a physical style and are able to establish a cycle, create scoring chances while simultaneously not coughing the puck up and limiting an opposing team’s top lines to fewer opportunities as well.
Part of the reason the configuration works, the players said, is they all have a blue-collar attitude with a willingness to drive the net. They might not be weaving in and out of opponents, but they’ll tire a defense out down low then pop out for a chance with traffic in the crease.
“They make a play when the play is there but they aren’t going to force anything,” Laich said of his linemates. “If the play isn’t there, we’re going to chip it in. They both do a great job coming across the ice to support the other guy, which allows us to forecheck. Now you have two guys going on the puck instead of just one. The first guy on our line is going to finish [his check] and the second guy’s going to be there to get the puck.”
The trio combined for three of the Capitals’ five goals in the games against Tampa Bay and Florida, with each member recording one. In those two games, they recorded 24 shots on goal and were credited with 27 hits.
Earlier this week, Laich mentioned the importance of establishing chemistry with linemates and making sure each player knows their role down the stretch of a season. While it’s uncertain how long Hunter will choose to keep this group together, for the time being they seem to be playing on par with the style and system he has sought all along. Laich said he hopes the line will stick together for a little while, even if their offensive production dips.
“Scoring is going to — with our unit — probably going to come and go,” Laich said. “But if we can keep the chances consistent — five six chances to maybe score a game — maybe one maybe two against means we’re affecting the game positively whether we score or not.”
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