It took less than 40 minutes of hockey for Capitals Coach Barry Trotz to see that his plan to spark right wing T.J. Oshie was not going as he had hoped. Trotz had reunited Oshie with Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, the top-line trio that helped Washington win so many games the past two seasons — even though Oshie told Trotz earlier in the week that he didn’t deserve to be playing beside those two while in the midst of a slump.
The reunion didn’t help Oshie look like his old self again, however. So Trotz seemed to heed Oshie’s earlier caution during Sunday’s game against the St. Louis Blues. Trotz moved right wing Devante Smith-Pelly back with Ovechkin and Backstrom and bumped Oshie to the third line with center Lars Eller and Brett Connolly.
Perhaps Oshie still has a little ways to go to return to the form that allowed him to score a career-high 33 goals last season and earn a massive eight-year, $46 million extension, but the second half of the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win over the Blues was an encouraging step. Oshie snapped a five-game point drought, tallying the primary assists on Washington’s third goal and then the overtime winner by Backstrom.
“I just thought that was the old Osh,” Trotz said after the game. “He was just playing and being a hockey player and winning every battle. When I watch T.J. Oshie, you marvel at his skill level and his smarts and how he can make something out of nothing, but what makes him special is the fact that he can keep plays alive and it’s his compete. I thought his will and his compete were really good today. And I don’t think he was worrying about production. He was just playing. That production comes when you play like that; he was moving his feet, and there was lots of good things in his game.”
Trotz thought the teams’ top-six forwards were neutralizing each other Sunday afternoon, and flipping Oshie and Smith-Pelly created some balance in Washington’s lineup. When the Capitals’ forward corps was deeper last year, it was a luxury the team had often, similar to a trend the Pittsburgh Penguins started two seasons ago when they played sniper Phil Kessel on a third line in the playoffs. Because of salary cap constraints, teams rarely have three good defensive pairs, so putting Oshie on a third line creates a mismatch for one of the Capitals’ top three trios.
After Ovechkin tied the game with a power-play goal, Oshie set up Eller for the go-ahead tally in the third period when he had a low shot on Blues goaltender Carter Hutton, passing the puck to Eller off Hutton’s pads. Eller then slammed in the rebound.
“The biggest thing that I noticed with Osh today as the game went on [was there was] more and more of that doggedness that he has in his game,” Trotz said. “He hounds pucks, he keeps plays alive, he’s a very intelligent player. He knew exactly what he was doing on Lars’s goal.”
Said Eller: “Our cycle game was good in the zone. We scored one off the rush. We just had a lot of possession, and that’s where it starts. That’s just another combination that it’s good for the coach to know that can work because it’s worked before. And it just gives us more options as a team. It’s just a strength for us that we have so many ways that we can put this lineup together.”
Entering Sunday’s game, Oshie had just one point — a goal — in the seven games since he’d returned from a concussion he suffered in early December. Going back even further, Oshie had just one goal in his past 14 games. His shot volume had dropped from 0.82 per game last season to 0.69 this year, and though he has 11 goals in 36 games, seven of those have come on the power play, on which he hasn’t scored since Nov. 18. When the line with Oshie, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana struggled in Carolina last week, Trotz made changes, even though the Capitals were coming off a win.
“I think it’s just a little bit frustrating that me, [Vrana] and Kuzy, three pretty good players, we couldn’t figure a way to bring some offense to the team,” Oshie said Wednesday.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” Backstrom, who went 21 games without a goal at one point this year, said. “I would probably know this season. That’s the way it goes in hockey. You’ve just got to stick with it, work hard and that’s what he does, too. He works hard every day when he comes to practice, so eventually it’s going to pay off. It’s good to see him get these assists.”
In overtime Sunday, Oshie collected a puck in the defensive zone, looked up and saw Backstrom alone along the right wall. Backstrom started skating, confident that the pass would hit him in stride, which it did. He scored on the breakaway, and the Capitals left the ice the victors.
“I mean, Osh is always determined,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Sometimes the puck doesn’t go your way. That happens. But with Osh, you know you’re always getting an effort. He’s contributing in ways other than the score sheet, if he’s not getting on it. So he’s one of those guys we don’t have to worry about. Obviously, he’s frustrated. He wants to score or be effective every night, but as a teammate, he shows up every single night. It’s kind of funny when he gets frustrated like that because he does so many good things on the ice that you never have to worry about him.”
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