For the first time not due to injury this season, the Capitals will feature a new-look first line as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have been split up as Coach Adam Oates experiments with chemistry and matchup possibilities.
Ovechkin is expected to start Thursday’s game against Carolina with Mikhail Grabovski and Eric Fehr while Backstrom will center a line between Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer. Washington’s two franchise players haven’t played on a separate line since the beginning of last season.
“I thought if anything the top line was getting a little stale, so just give them a break, maybe see what happens with the mix up,” Oates said. “Just looking for a little spark, maybe affect some matchups and see what we get because we haven’t really done it. Doesn’t mean halfway through the game it couldn’t go back.”
The Hurricanes emphasize line and defense pair matching against the Capitals, especially Ovechkin. By splitting Ovechkin and Backstrom, Oates hopes to make Carolina Coach Kirk Muller’s job a little more difficult.
“I don’t think they a physical team, they more as a team go back and try to don’t give you shooting lane, put pressure on you from behind,” Ovechkin said of the familiar Hurricanes. “It’s not a team like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh where you have to be ready for a hit all the time. It’s a good part of it, but second part you have find the lane and find the space out there….It’s a challenge.”
>> After missing 14 of the past 15 games with a lingering groin injury, Brooks Laich will be back in the Capitals lineup Thursday night. He last appeared on Dec. 23 against Anaheim and skated 13:23 in that contest but experienced some discomfort the following day that has held him out of the three games since.
He’s expected to start on the fourth line with Aaron Volpatti coming out of the lineup to make room. Alex Urbom and Michal Neuvirth will be the other healthy scratches.
>> Projected lines for both teams
Jeff Skinner-Eric Staal-Alexander Semin
Nathan Gerbe-Jordan Staal-Patrick Dwyer
Drayson Bowman-Riley Nash-Tuomo Ruutu
Zach Boychuk-Manny Malhotra-Radek Dvorak
Andrej Sekera-Justin Faulk
John-Michael Liles-Ryan Murphy
Ron Hainsey-Brett Bellemore
Anton Khudobin will start. Justin Peters will back up.