By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; D03
One constant throughout Coach Bruce Boudreau's tenure with the Washington Capitals has been his penchant for changing up his forward lines.
But he hasn't tinkered with them recently. In fact, Boudreau has kept the combinations consistent for 10 games, dating from Jan. 5 -- a 4-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens that catapulted the Capitals on their current run.
"It's nice to have linemates," winger Brooks Laich joked after Monday's practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "When someone asks, 'Who's your line?' you don't have to name nine guys."
Boudreau concocted the new lines after the Capitals suffered a third consecutive regulation defeat in Los Angeles, 2-1. The time had come for something new.
So Boudreau reunited Alex Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble on the first line; shifted Tomas Fleischmann from left wing to center on the second line with Laich and Alexander Semin; and placed then-newcomer Jason Chimera with Brendan Morrison and Eric Fehr on the third line. (The fourth line materialized a game later, when Boudreau put Boyd Gordon with David Steckel and Matt Bradley.)
The results since then have been hard to ignore. The league's best offense has become even more prolific, and the Capitals have won nine of their past 10 games. In that span, all the lines have contributed consistently as the team has amassed 49 goals, including 33 at even strength and four from fourth-liners.
"Since we made the trade for Jason and since we've moved [Fleischmann] to the middle, a lot more things have fit," Boudreau said. "I like the chemistry on all four lines. I anticipate this is the way we'll go unless injuries dictate otherwise."
After a few days of being back with Ovechkin and Backstrom, Knuble said he implored Boudreau to keep the lines together, explaining how playing with the same linemates in Philadelphia helped him average 28.5 goals per season over four seasons.
"It made perfect sense to me," Boudreau said of Knuble's suggestion. "So we kept them together, and kept them together, and then Mike started scoring."
Knuble, who has seven goals since the switch, added: "What I've learned the last few years is that it's important to have continuity with the lines and letting it go a little bit. The balance we have now is good. You learn guys' tendencies, where they like to go. You learn those little tendencies and they add up to goals at important times."
That idea manifested itself on the Capitals' third goal in Saturday's 4-2 victory over Phoenix. Fleischmann said he sensed where Semin would be on the ice prior to sending a no-look, between-the-skates pass from the end boards to the Russian winger, who promptly snapped the winning goal into the net.
"I know he likes to hang out on that side and wait for a pass," Fleischmann told reporters. "I just kind of knew he would be there."
Fleischmann and Knuble aren't alone in their support of continuity from game to game.
"It's good coming to the rink knowing who you're going to be playing with," said Fehr, who has five goals since joining Morrison and Chimera. "You get better chemistry when you can work on some plays in practice. You've seen the results. Guys are making smarter plays and better decisions as a line.
"It's hard for me to believe, because I've been with Bruce for years and he's never stayed with one lineup until the playoffs," Fehr added. "That's when he stays the same. Maybe he's trying to get the lines better prepared for the playoffs."
Laich added: "When you've been stuck together [this] many games and you get into a rhythm, that's why you're seeing our team score four, five goals a game because each line knows its responsibility. Right now we're playing really well, so there's no reason to change."
Capitals notes: Brian Pothier (broken hand) said he's ready to return and will travel with the team to Long Island. Boudreau said the defenseman will play at some point this week. . . . Semyon Varlamov, sidelined since Dec. 7 with groin muscle and knee ligament injuries, did not skate as previously anticipated. "None," Boudreau said when asked for an update on the goaltender's status. "They keep pushing it back a day."