COLUMBUS, Ohio — Statistical oddities aside, Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson is doing all he can to become a permanent part of a lineup that has been shifting all season long.
Stephenson has three goals in his last four games after netting just two goals in the first 49 contests of his career. That includes two goals in a 49-second stretch in a win over the Philadelphia Flyers last week, and then another in an eventual 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday. Capitals Coach Barry Trotz has often mentioned the competition for minutes among his bottom-six forwards, which refers to wingers like Stephenson, Alex Chiasson, Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky and Devante Smith-Pelly. Stephenson was again in the lineup in a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night, skating on the left wing on the fourth line and starting each penalty kill with Jay Beagle, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen.
Vrana was a healthy scratch for the first two games of Stephenson’s recent offensive surge. Chiasson was a healthy scratch against the Golden Knights and then again in Columbus. Stephenson, a defensive-minded forward flashing a previously unseen ability to score, seems to be working his way out of that rotation and into a fixed spot in Trotz’s lineup.
“Just trying my best,” Stephenson said, after the Golden Knights game, of earning a spot in the lineup. “Playing [penalty kill] now so trying to do my best there with [Beagle], so just trying not to think about it too much and go out there and have some fun.”
Outside of the pairing of center Lars Eller and Brett Connolly on the third line, Trotz continued to move around his wingers against the Blue Jackets. The tinkering has been most noticeable with the third and fourth lines. Jay Beagle is a mainstay as the team’s fourth-line center but, after that, the four remaining spots (the left wing on the third line and both wings on the fourth) have been part of Trotz’s ongoing competition for ice time.
Stephenson, as of late, has penciled himself in for one of those rotating positions. He was on the third line with Eller and Connolly when Vrana was scratched, then moved to the fourth line with Beagle and Smith-Pelly when Chiasson was nudged out of the lineup. Stephenson, 23, has proven adaptable because of his strong skating and commitment to grinding in the defensive zone. On the third line, that is a complement to the puck-possessing Eller and sharpshooting Connolly. On the fourth line, his style is similar to Beagle and Smith-Pelly’s and that gives the group three players who forecheck hard and fly at loose pucks. He has also established himself on the Capitals’ penalty kill, which extinguished three Blue Jackets’ power plays in the win.
There were a few unclear variables with the Capitals’ forwards as Tuesday night unfolded. Vrana appeared to do extra work after the morning skate, an indication he would be a healthy scratch for the third time in four games, but then slid into the lineup with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on the Capitals’ second line. That left Chiasson as the odd forward out for the second consecutive contest. Burakovsky, who was on the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, played a season-low 6:34 and did not touch the ice in the third period.
Stephenson, however, had a clear role, playing 16:03 (his third highest ice time of the season) with his added penalty-kill duties. And while Trotz noted Tuesday morning that he does not feel a pressing need to settle on four solidified lines any time soon, it seems as if he is starting to factor Stephenson into each change that he makes.
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