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Capitals tinker with their ‘toolbox’ with an eye toward the playoffs

Washington Capitals right wing Justin Williams, left was shifted to the third line with forward Jason Chimera, right, this week as Coach Barry Trotz made subtle tweaks ahead of the playoffs. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The Washington Capitals may have been less than 24 hours removed from a 4-1 win over Nashville and, perhaps, just a week away from clinching the NHL’s Presidents’ Trophy, but it was hard to tell Saturday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Coach Barry Trotz put the team through a fast-paced, 30-minute practice, complete with a variety of drills and sprints before players got on a plane headed for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh.   

This was by design, part of Trotz’s plan to use the final weeks of a dominant regular season to tinker with the team’s on-ice product in order to best prepare for a long Stanley Cup playoff run.

“We’re trying to select elements of our game, where if we can add something, if we can tweak something, or if we can correct something, we’re just trying to do it,” Trotz said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to look at areas we might use down the road, or something that maybe as we’re playing teams, ‘Hey, we don’t have that in our toolbox.’ Maybe we should just put it in there, so it’s just a little bit familiar with the guys.”

Saturday’s practice, for instance, was largely spent on defensive positioning, defenseman Karl Alzner said, since the Capitals have faced an increasing number of teams, including Nashville Friday night, that play with aggressive blue-liners that like to join the offensive rush.

But the subtle changes can vary from day-to-day, from different forechecks and zone breakouts to new face-off plays and morning skate formats. With so much cushion in the standings, and just 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Capitals have the luxury of being able to experiment without worrying too much about losing ground.

“If we can take the time right now to add different aspects to our game that we could potentially have to use down the road, that could be huge,” forward Tom Wilson said. “You always want to have different stuff to your game that you can implement if need be.”

Even this week’s line changes — Jay Beagle was elevated to the top line, wing T.J. Oshie moved to the second line and veteran Justin Williams shifted to the third line — play into this philosophy because “guys that are so reliant on a threesome of players playing together and never broken up, when something happens, they can’t play,” Trotz said. “You’re sort of flirting with disaster if you have that mindset.”

As Trotz noted Saturday, an injury to Eric Fehr fundamentally altered Washington’s third line during last year’s playoff run and he has been encouraged with how the Capitals responded to this week’s alterations. In Tuesday’s win over Carolina, the third line of Williams, Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson excelled. On Friday night, it was Oshie, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky that provided much of the offensive firepower.

“We’re very interchangeable parts here and our depth is one of our best attributes and it’s going to carry us a long way in the playoffs,” Williams said. “These are good barometer games for us, just to see where we are and ramp our game up for the fun times.”

“It’s kind of nice,” Alzner added. “We’re fortunate that we can tinker with a few things right now, but you want to still keep your work ethic up. You don’t want to kill guys, but you still want to know what it’s like to battle, still know what it’s like to skate on the off days.”