COLUMBUS, Ohio — At first glance, the most significant wrinkle of Barry Trotz’s latest lineup changes is that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are back together on the Capitals’ top line. Trotz split up his two biggest stars five games ago, and they have not been on the same line since. But they were during the team’s morning skate at Nationwide Arena on Tuesday, indicating that they could be reunited when the Capitals face the Blue Jackets at 7 p.m.
But while the offensive punch of Backstrom and Ovechkin, individually and together, should never be understated, the more significant reunion could come further down the lineup.
During Tuesday’s morning skate, Trotz reconstructed a third line of Brett Connolly, center Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky. This is a lineup that had a ton of success together this time last season, combining for 22 goals and 17 assists in an 18-game stretch that connected January to February. The rhythm was halted by a hand injury that kept Burakovsky sidelined for 15 games, but those 18 contests hinted at the production the group can generate.
The results then were impressive if not sustainable. Burakovsky tallied seven goals and eight assists. Eller accounted for seven goals and five assists, a large chunk of the 12 goals and 13 assists he finished the year with. Connolly scored eight times and added four assists, leading him to a career-high 15 goals by the end of the season. The Capitals went 15-2-1 in that span. Now that line, which cooled after Burakovsky returned from injury and never found his stride in last spring’s playoffs, has a chance to show if last year’s stretch was a fluke or foreshadowed future success.
Burakovsky has bounced around Trotz’s lineup in recent weeks, while Eller and Connolly have been consistently on the third line.
“It’s the guys I’ve spent the most time playing with and have also played the best hockey with, at least at times,” said Eller, who joined the franchise before last season, after the morning skate. “So I think we know that we can be good together, the chemistry is there, now we just have to go out and execute.”
While the Capitals’ first and third lines looked to solidify Tuesday morning, it is unclear what the second and fourth lines will look like against the Blue Jackets. This is how the lineup looked during initial line rushes:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly
Scratch: Alex Chiasson
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Scratch: Taylor Chorney
Braden Holtby (starter)
The confusion came at the end of the morning skate, when Vrana stayed on the ice for extra work. That usually indicates which players will be healthy scratches for the game, and Vrana was the odd forward out in two games last week. If he is again, it is possible that Trotz could slide Stephenson — who has scored three goals in the last three games — on the left wing next to Kuznetsov and Oshie.
Trotz has tinkered with his lines throughout the season and, while he wouldn’t mind finding a consistent four groups for the stretch run of the season, he is also in no rush to do so.
“You move people around and maybe you can get a [better] matchup for yourself in other areas,” Trotz said of shifting his forwards on a game-to-game basis based on the opponent. “I think we want to construct our lines similar to what we’ve had in the past and have four lines that we can feel comfortable in any situation and get production from all four lines.”
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