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Michael Latta, Nate Schmidt return to Capitals lineup

Nate Schmidt skates with the puck against San Jose Sharks. (Nick Wass/AP)

Michael Latta started to sense a change was coming on Wednesday, before the Washington Capitals played the Pittsburgh Penguins. Coach Barry Trotz had told Latta he might play again soon, after the 24-year-old forward had been a healthy scratch for more than two weeks.

That change was cemented with a 3-1 loss on Wednesday night. During Friday’s morning skate, Latta took rushes for the first time since a 5-0 loss to San Jose on Oct. 13. Against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he’ll be the right wing on a fourth line centered by Brooks Laich, which also allows Andre Burakovsky to move back to the left side, his more natural place. That means 21-year-old center Chandler Stephenson is the odd man out.

“It’s tough to keep your head in all of the time,” Latta said. “But, you know, you’ve just got to be a pro. It’s tough, but at the end of the day, I’m still living my dream and playing in the NHL.”

Though the fourth line with Stephenson at center had good possession numbers in a small sample size of playing together for four games, it was the only line that hadn’t scored during the Capitals’ hot offensive streak. In any case, when Washington was on a five-game win streak, changes were unlikely. But after the Capitals lost to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, Trotz said the fourth line has to be better.

“This will be a good test for him,” Trotz said of Latta. “He’s got to get back in. … What I want to see is just consistency in his game. It starts with practice and it builds to a little more consistency, so we’ll see. If he can bring that, he can be very effective.”

Latta’s insertion wasn’t the only change, as defenseman Nate Schmidt will play on the right side of the third pairing, with Dmitry Orlov on the left. Outside of the first two games and an appearance by Schmidt in Vancouver, Taylor Chorney has played the majority of games.

Schmidt hasn’t played consistently on the right since he was in college, so he admitted it takes some adjusting, though it has its benefits, particularly in the offensive zone. Trotz said he thought Wednesday was Orlov’s best game and he’s gotten better and better, so the plan is to keep him on the left side.

“It’s more of when you’re breaking pucks out and you’re handling things in the neutral zone,” Schmidt said. “The hardest part is probably playing in the neutral zone and catching passes on your backhand, or having to move up the ice kind of laterally as oppose to when your body is facing up the ice when you’re playing on your strong side. That’s when you see a little bit of a difference.

“It’s a huge advantage in the offensive zone. You can dive down on and be on your forehand instead of being on your backhand, which is really nice.”

The projected lineup for Friday night’s game is below. With the Capitals on the front end of a back-to-back, goaltender Philipp Grubauer is expected to start against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.

Forwards

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson-Nicklas Backstrom-Justin Williams

Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson

Andre Burakovsky-Brooks Laich-Michael Latta

Defensemen

Brooks Orpik-John Carlson

Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen

Dmitry Orlov-Nate Schmidt

Goaltenders

Braden Holtby

Philipp Grubauer

Scratches

Stanislav Galiev

Chandler Stephenson

Taylor Chorney

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