Decked Twice, Capitals Shuffle

Today's hot topics with The Post's Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon and Sports Editor Cindy Boren.
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, April 16 -- With the Washington Capitals reeling after consecutive losses and his top offensive players being shut down by a bruising Philadelphia Flyers team, Coach Bruce Boudreau experimented with several changes on Wednesday, one day after his team was thumped, 6-3.

Veteran Sergei Fedorov -- and not rookie Nicklas Backstrom -- centered Alex Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov on the top line during practice at Wachovia Center. Backstrom was dropped to the second line, and Boudreau gave the slumping power play a makeover.

Boudreau said he hasn't committed to implementing all of the changes Thursday night for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, but the fact that he is considering them implies a sense of desperation for the Capitals after being out-hustled and out-shot by a combined 74-43 in Games 2 and 3.

"Just [messing] around today, seeing if anything would work," Boudreau said. "You'll probably see them back to normal tomorrow. Just seeing if there was anything there that I liked."

Asked if anything pleased him, Boudreau said: "I can't say that. I can't." Pressed further about Backstrom and which line he'll center, Boudreau smiled. "I expect him to be playing tomorrow," he said.

If Boudreau follows through with the shake-up, it certainly would be justified. The line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kozlov has been a mainstay since December, but the trio has been rendered ineffective by Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and center Mike Richards.

In the three games, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kozlov have one goal between them -- by Ovechkin in Game 1 -- and Backstrom and Kozlov have mustered only eight shots, including only one apiece in Game 3. Ovechkin has been limited to a secondary assist (on the power play) since Game 1, while Kozlov remains scoreless in 17 career playoff games. Backstrom, 20, has looked overwhelmed by the intensity of the series.

"They are playing well and not giving me any space to shoot the puck," Ovechkin said. Asked if he is feeling frustrated, he said: "No. I am frustrated that we losing."

Boudreau reiterated that it's up to Ovechkin to adapt and "find a way" to counter the Flyers' suffocating defense. Timonen, in fact, has not been on the ice for a goal this series and told reporters Wednesday that he expects to play despite an injury he suffered Tuesday.

"My history with him [Ovechkin] is that you can't keep a good man down," Boudreau said. "They're doing a good job on him. Every time he touches the puck, they're hitting him."

As for Backstrom, Boudreau said: "We've got a lot inexperience out there. Sometimes, there have been a lot of guys who have looked overwhelmed."

The Flyers' veteran first line of Vaclav Prospal, Daniel Brière and Scott Hartnell, by comparison, has scored seven goals, led by Brière's four. That line has a combined 108 games of playoff experience, nearly five times the postseason experience of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kozlov.

If Backstrom centers the second line, it will be with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin.

Wednesday's practice was longer than usual for Washington's players and coaches, who appeared to approach it with a more businesslike attitude than recent sessions.

Boudreau dedicated a half-hour to tweaking the power play, which is 2 for 16 in the series (12.5 percent effectiveness). In an effort to generate more traffic in front of Flyers goalie Martin Biron, the revamped first unit is composed of Laich (in front of the net), Ovechkin (in the slot), Backstrom and Mike Green (on the wings), and Fedorov (at the point). Eric Fehr will be positioned in front of Biron on the second unit.

"I don't think it's any secret we want more traffic in front of the net," Boudreau said, referring to Laich and Fehr. "The guys that are good at it, we thought we'd give them a chance at it."

It appeared the Capitals might have caught a break when Timonen suffered a shoulder injury in Game 3. He was shoved by Laich into the net late in the second period and appeared to collide with the in-goal camera and did not return to the game. But he told reporters on Wednesday he plans to play.

Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz, meantime, probably won't. He left Tuesday's game with back spasms and did not practice. If he is unable to suit up, he'll be replaced by Steve Eminger.

One change Boudreau has not contemplated making has been in goal. Though Cristobal Huet has an .884 save percentage and a 3.69 goals against average in the playoffs, down from the .936 save percentage and 1.63 goals against average as he led the Capitals' charge into the postseason, it is expected Huet will be in goal again in Game 4.

At times on Tuesday, Huet seemed to get flustered after contact with Flyers forwards. At one point, he and Brière tangled and earned matching roughing penalties.

Asked if he is surprised that his team has not responded by taking a run at Biron, Boudreau joked, "We play by the rules."

"I don't think they are being overly aggressive," Boudreau added of the Flyers. "They always play [that way]. They've done it since the early '70s on the power play, get as close to the goalie as possible. That's their style. We would like to have more attention on the crease, but we need more shots to do that. When you get 19 shots in a game, there's usually not much happening in the crease."

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