Two games ago Coach Adam Oates separated Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in an effort to stir up what he felt was a stale top line and provide better balance by challenging opponents to pick which unit to focus their matchups on.
“If you can find chemistry and spread it out among your lineup you’re in a good position. Obviously splitting Ovi and Backy up it makes it difficult for them: Which guy do they pick their poison with?” Oates said. “To do that, both lines have to contribute. The other night [against Carolina] they did and hopefully we can have a run where everybody’s jelling.”
As efficiently as Ovechkin has racked up goals so far this season, only 16 of his 31 goals have come at even strength and he was riding a four-game scoring drought before the switch. Also, before the switch Backstrom and Marcus Johansson had a combined seven even-strength goals, making it a rather one-dimensional top line that focused on feeding the insatiable scoring machine that is Ovechkin.
Pairing Ovechkin with Mikhail Grabovski, who always seems to help his line control play, and Eric Fehr, who is both a shooter and a playmaker, has had benefits in their brief time together. The combination seems to be pushing the star right wing directly up ice and sustaining a more uniform presence as all three are looking to shoot as much as pass. (Granted, Ovechkin was on the ice for both of Minnesota’s even-strength goals in Saturday night’s loss, one during a shift with fourth-liners Martin Erat and Tom Wilson and then as a power play expired in the third period.)
“Going down the ice, if anything I think [Grabovski’s] speed helps Ovi,” Oates said. “It makes Ovi have to catch up to him and as a line they move north a little quicker and in the zone, he makes good reads.”
Against Carolina, the Fehr-Grabovski-Ovechkin trio combined for 22 attempted shots on goal, 14 of which came from the captain. In Minnesota it was far less diverse, with Ovechkin accounting for 10 of 12 attempts, but Grabovski and Fehr are both seeking to play a balanced game and know they can’t focus exclusively on feeding the league-leading goal scorer.
“Just shoot the puck — I think it’s better for everybody the more we all shoot. Even if I shoot more he’s going to have more rebounds,” Grabovski said, referring to Ovechkin. “He can score more goals because it’s not 100 percent I score from my shot but 100 percent it could be rebound.”
Moving Ovechkin away from Backstrom and Johansson allows them both to focus more on creating opportunities for the unit and less on trying to find the dynamic winger. While it’s uncertain how long Oates will keep the two Swedish playmakers on a unit with Troy Brouwer, this stint is providing a valuable reminder that they can create offensive opportunities for themselves as well.
In Minnesota, Backstrom’s unit with Johnasson and Brouwer combined for 14 attempted shots, seven on net, and against Carolina they recorded 10 attempts.
Ovechkin “has a tremendous shot and if it’s possible to give him the puck, it’s just what you do most of the time,” Backstrom said. “But I know if I’ve got a shot I have to take it, same with Marcus. That’s something we talked about as a line – that we needed to get better at creating more chances for everyone – before Oatesy changed it and we’re trying to do that now.”