RALEIGH, N.C. — They each played their parts perfectly. Lars Eller won the defensive-zone faceoff, the puck gliding down to Carolina’s end of the ice as T.J. Oshie and Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin chased after it. Hanifin got there first, skating around the back of the net, but Oshie was a nuisance, applying forecheck pressure. Just as Oshie forced Hanifin into an errant pass into the slot, Brett Connolly intercepted it and promptly shot the puck past Carolina goaltender Cam Ward for the game-tying goal with 3:08 left in regulation Friday night.
The Capitals went on to win, 4-3, thanks to a Jay Beagle buzzer-beating tally in the last two seconds. Though Connolly’s goal went down as unassisted because the Hurricanes technically had possession immediately before Connolly’s shot, the game-tying play wouldn’t have happened without Oshie’s hustle.
“He just brings a different element to me and Lars,” Connolly said.
It seemed that Washington’s forward depth took a hit when the team parted with top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams in the offseason because of salary-cap constraints. But 45 games into the season, the Capitals have Oshie, who tied Alex Ovechkin for the team lead in goals last season with 33, playing on their third line. Just as Coach Barry Trotz did last season, he has been able to spread his top scoring forwards throughout the lineup for a balanced attack, again making Washington a difficult team to match up against.
While opponents are concerning themselves with the Capitals’ top line featuring Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, or the Evgeny Kuznetsov-centered second line, the forward trio of Oshie, Eller and Connolly has scored four even-strength goals in the four games those three players have skated side-by-side on the third line.
“Right now, we feel that with the number of games that we’ve had, we’re using a little bit of a deeper roster, if you will,” Trotz said. “We’re trying to spread the offense out a little bit. … That’s where we’re trying to build because, if we’re going to do anything, it’s going to be the depth of our forwards and our ability to make things happen and have different guys play different roles. Like [against Carolina on Friday], I thought some guys were off and weren’t having great games, but other guys are able to step up and get the job done. That’s the beauty of it; they keep pushing each other. That’s the sign of a team that finds ways to win, and we have.”
Oshie landed on the third line because his own play had been, as Trotz said recently, “not T.J. Oshie-like.” With 11 goals and 16 assists in 39 games, he’s unlikely to match his career-best output from last season. He missed six games in December because of a concussion, and as he played beside Kuznetsov and rookie Jakub Vrana when he returned to the lineup, the trio wasn’t productive. Oshie had just one point in seven games with a minus-3 rating before Trotz tried to reunite him with Ovechkin and Backstrom, the team’s top line in the past two seasons.
That didn’t spark Oshie as Trotz had hoped, so the experiment lasted less than two periods. Trotz then bumped Oshie down to the third line before the third period against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, and Oshie went on to set up Eller’s third-period goal en route to an overtime win. Oshie finished with two assists that day, and though he’s in a nine-game goal drought, his presence has made Washington’s third trio its most formidable of late.
Two years ago, Pittsburgh played sniper Phil Kessel on its third line with center Nick Bonino and winger Carl Hagelin, and that forward group was the Penguins’ best in their run to the Stanley Cup. Teams have been trying to copy that formula since, a departure from loading up the top-six forward corps in favor of a top-nine approach. Though Oshie is Washington’s top right wing, playing him lower in the lineup means he and his linemates can take advantage of favorable competition. When Oshie, Connolly and Eller have been on the ice together at even strength over the past four games, the Capitals have taken roughly 59 percent of the shot attempts.
“When you can spread guys like [Oshie] throughout your lineup, it makes your forward group just that much better,” Connolly said. “… He’s such a good player with the puck. He’s smart, he’s poised, he rarely gives the puck away. When he’s playing at his best, he’s very, very hard to take the puck away from, and he’s very good when he’s got it. He’s been very positive through this — I don’t want to say demotion, but he’s used to playing top-six minutes. He’s come down with me and Lars and been very positive and very upbeat, and we’ve been playing really well.”
Trotz also hesitated to refer to Oshie as moving “down” the lineup because “Lars has been playing so well.” In his second season with the Capitals, Eller is on a four-game goal streak, the longest of his career, and he now has nine goals and 12 assists, just four points away from the 25 he scored in 81 games last season. He and Oshie were teammates in St. Louis at the start of their careers. Together again in Washington, that duo could be a winning combination for the Capitals going forward.
“I think they have a little bit of chemistry,” Trotz said Thursday. “I think Osh has added a dimension to that line that, because Lars has a lot of puck-possession abilities, I think they can play a little bit of a two-man game, and Conno is a little bit of that sniper on there. He can make plays as well. We’ll see if we go with it. They’ve been one of our better lines. They might have moved to the forefront based on their game.”
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