Before what could be the Washington Capitals’ final practice of the season, Alex Ovechkin stepped onto the ice with a new wardrobe. Typically a white jersey is reserved for the team’s bottom six forwards, but with the team one loss away from another second-round playoff elimination, there was Ovechkin skating in a white sweater, signaling a significant demotion for the team captain.
“We all know we’re not doing as good as we want, so we kind of expected some changes to be made,” forward T.J. Oshie said. “We didn’t know what they were going to be.”
Ovechkin was moved off Washington’s first line with center Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie, and he instead practiced with third-line center Lars Eller and right wing Tom Wilson. It’s unclear if Coach Barry Trotz plans to actually play Ovechkin in a bottom-six role in Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, but that it could be a consideration for the Capitals is a telling sign of their precarious position.
As the league’s best regular-season team for a second straight year, one of Washington’s strengths came from being a four-line team with a balanced scoring attack. Trotz acknowledged the team “deviated” from that in its first-round series against Toronto, and never reclaimed that identity against Pittsburgh. Instead, the Capitals have turned to a configuration of 11 forwards and seven defensemen, something they hadn’t done all season, and the production from the third and fourth lines has vanished in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. Just three forwards — Ovechkin, Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov — have scored against Pittsburgh through four games.
Though the Capitals have outshot the Penguins, 142-93, it hasn’t translated into enough goals, and now they’ve run out of time. Washington has leaned on the chemistry of stable forward lines for more than four months, but going into Saturday’s elimination game, the Capitals hope that a new look will spark their offense. With the margin for error nonexistent, it could work, or it could be the final failed experiment that ends Washington’s season short of its Stanley Cup goal.
“I think it’s just to a situation where you want to switch up the lines and get better, I hope,” Ovechkin said. “And I hope it’s going to work.”
After Washington’s 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh Wednesday night, Ovechkin was critical of his own performance, and Trotz seemed to echo that when he said his top players needed to perform better. Ovechkin has one goal and three assists in the past four games with a minus-two rating. But Trotz said moving Ovechkin to a third line in Friday’s practice wasn’t in response to his poor play in Game 4. He suggested that with a lineup of 11 forwards Ovechkin could be double-shifted, so he wanted him to spend some time practicing with Eller and Wilson.
That seemed to go against Ovechkin’s understanding of the change; he said it was intended to spread the scoring threats and create a trickier matchup for the Penguins. Pittsburgh had a similar strategy last season by playing sniping winger Phil Kessel on its third line. Asked if the forward line shifting was Trotz trying to send a message, Ovechkin said, “It’s playoffs, why do you have to send a message?
“It’s not a good time to send a message. We here to do whatever it takes to get the win and move forward. I don’t think it’s to send a message or something.”
Said Trotz: “The bottom line is we need him to be really good. He’s got to respond this next game and be a difference maker for us. We need contributions from everybody in our lineup. We need our top players to be the best players and that goes for everybody from our goaltender right through our lineup, forwards and defense.”
But after how much Washington emphasized the importance of secondary scoring this offseason, the team’s supporting cast is also at fault. The Capitals traded for Eller before the season and then signed winger Brett Connolly, hopeful those two additions would create a more offensive third line that could better match up against Pittsburgh’s. But with Washington playing seven defensemen, Connolly, who scored 15 goals during the regular season, has been scratched, and the Capitals haven’t gotten a goal from their bottom-six forward corps all series.
The play of the third line during this series has especially mirrored the team’s play as a whole; while it’s had strong offensive zone time and created good scoring chances, it hasn’t translated into actual production. Players have expressed confidence in the process, but have been unsatisfied with their execution.
“It can be frustrating,” Eller said. “But the trick is to not start thinking too much. The trick is to not start questioning what you can do better. … Sometimes, you run into a hot goalie, and it is what it is. But we believe that we can still score goals and we’ve got to keep doing the same thing, not over-think it, but at the same time, we’ve got to start capitalizing on our chances.”
Perhaps acting out of desperation, the Capitals appear to be doing the opposite, getting away from the qualities that initially made them a favorite to win a Stanley Cup.
Here’s how the lineup looked in Friday’s practice:
Andre Burakovsky-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams
Alex Ovechkin-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Daniel Winnik-Jay Beagle
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-John Carlson
Nate Schmidt-Kevin Shattenkirk
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