With all indications pointing to left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Jason Arnott re-joining the team for tonight’s game against Carolina, the speculation now turns to what Coach Bruce Boudreau will do with his often-fluid line combinations.
If Boudreau sticks with the standard combinations, expect to see Nicklas Backstrom centering the first line with Ovechkin and Mike Knuble and Arnott the second-line center with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. The third line would comprise Marco Sturm, Marcus Johansson and Eric Fehr; and the fourth line would be Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks and Matt Bradley.
Boudreau, however, has shown a fondness for tinkering, and he gave away nothing during his news conference following the optional morning skate at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Boudreau has used Johansson on the first line. He’s also had Backstrom skate with Hendricks and Knuble, and most recently, the top line was Sturm-Backstrom-Semin.
Of course, those combinations emerged with Arnott and Ovechkin out of the lineup for the past three games, all on the road. Ovechkin has missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury, and Arnott missed the entire six-game road trip with a lower-body injury that is in addition to a groin ailment.
“I’m not going to say who’s in the lineup and who’s out of the lineup right now,” Boudreau said. “We’re just talking to the trainers and finding out who’s healthy, who’s not healthy, who’s ready to go, who’s not ready to go. The players will all know, but you guys will know when you see it.”
Despite the mystery surrounding tonight’s lineup, there is no mistaking what’s at stake over the final six games, including the next three in a row at home. Washington begins tonight two points behind Philadelphia for the No. 1 position in the Eastern Conference, although the Flyers have one game in hand.
The Hurricanes, meantime, are five points behind Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. A loss would all but end their hopes of making the postseason.
The Capitals are 5-0 this season against the Hurricanes, but all but one of those games were decided by one goal. Washington won the most recent meeting, 2-1, on March 11 at Verizon Center.
“They’re going to give us their best game,” Boudreau said. “Last game they played us, for two periods they outplayed us. We scored two goals in the third period and won the game, but as a big rival of ours, we know what they’re going to bring to the table, how good that Staal line has been playing. We know what we have to do. Doing it is a different thing.”
The Capitals also are well aware what happened in their first home game following their last lengthy road trip. After a five-game trip from Feb. 14 through Feb. 21, Washington came back to Verizon Center and lost handily to the New York Rangers, 6-0, four days later.
“We still have a lot to play for,” Laich said. “I mean, nothing’s wrapped up yet. We’re two points back of Philly for first in the conference. There’s still six games left, so there’s a lot of things going on.
“Guys are starting to get healthy, and players want to be in the lineup come playoffs, so everybody’s got something to play for. That’s individual stuff, but on a team note, we just keep playing and trying to iron out our game for when the playoffs come.”