After a plodding loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz made some big line changes at Saturday’s practice. Here is how the Capitals looked while skating at Kettler Iceplex, which was brimming with fans as the team took the ice before a bit before 11:30 a.m.:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Andre Burakovsky-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Chandler Stephenson-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Devante Smith-Pelly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
That left 21-year-old Jakub Vrana cycling in and out, and it looks like he will be a healthy scratch when the Capitals face the Philadelphia Flyers at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Capital One Arena. Saturday’s practice was the last time the team skated before that game, which will be a chance for the Capitals to bounce back after back-to-back losses Thursday (4-3 at the New Jersey Devils in overtime) and Friday (3-2 to the Canadiens). The biggest change is Trotz splitting up Ovechkin and Backstrom, something he did to start the season before reuniting them against Ottawa on Nov. 22.
The Capitals beat the Senators, 5-2, that day and then won 10 of their subsequent 12 games. In the 25 games Ovechkin and Backstrom have skated together since, the team is 17-5-3, and Ovechkin is tied for the league lead with 28 goals this season. But Trotz felt the need to shake things up after two straight lethargic outings, and that could mean spreading out his two best offensive players.
“Just like anything, if you’ve watched us play lately, we’ve gone a little bit stale. I don’t know if it’s the break, but I go right before the break,” Trotz said, nodding to the Capitals’ five-day bye week that ended Thursday. “I’ve been contemplating, maybe it’s time for a little switch. It might be a game. It might be the next 20 — I don’t know. Eighty-two games, teams have lulls in the way they play and how they play and how they execute and, production-wise, we got guys that are really, last 10, 12 games, we’ve gotten zero. Fundamentally have gotten nothing.”
In last spring’s second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Trotz shifted Ovechkin away from Backstrom and united Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie. That line was also together for a bit at the start of this season, but Oshie acknowledged Saturday that none of the three players was playing well at that time. Backstrom, one of the NHL’s most skilled passers, has a chance to elevate Oshie and Burakovsky out of offensive slumps.
Oshie has scored just once in his past 20 games and has only four even-strength goals all season. Last year, he finished with a career-high 25 even-strength goals. Burakovsky, who was the team’s best skater in Friday’s loss after sitting for the previous three games due to illness and a healthy scratch, has not tallied a point in his past seven appearances.
“I think just Oshie’s skill and work ethic, and Nick’s skill and feel for the game, it’s just a perfect combination,” Burakovsky said Saturday. “I think when you get with Nick and Oshie, they can create something from nothing every time, and they are such smart players. The only thing I have to do is skate and be open.”
They aren’t the only players who could use a lift. Kuznetsov has scored once in his past 11 games and can only benefit from the attention Ovechkin draws from the opposition. The third line of Connolly, Eller and Oshie was playing well together the past few weeks, but Trotz opted to stack the first and second lines with players who have typically been the Capitals’ “top-six forwards” across this season and last.
“As a coach, as I have in the last couple games, I move lines around,” Trotz said. “Sometimes it works. It worked for us in Carolina. I think it worked for us a bit in New Jersey in the third. [Against the Canadiens,] it didn’t have much of an effect.”
Now it seems that Trotz will try something else against the Flyers, his most drastic changes of this recent stretch.
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