RALEIGH, N.C. — Washington Capitals Coach Todd Reirden tinkered with all four of his forward lines during Wednesday’s practice at PNC Arena, a strong sign he plans to change his lineup in hopes of creating an offensive spark for Game 4 of his team’s best-of-seven series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
One of the biggest changes Reirden made was moving forward T.J. Oshie to the top line to skate alongside center Nicklas Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin. Forward Tom Wilson was moved to the second line with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and forward Jakub Vrana. The Capitals, who lead the series 2-1, have gotten nine points from the top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Wilson over the first three games.
Oshie, who has one goal and one assist vs. the Hurricanes, knows the move could create more scoring chances for him.
“I haven’t been up to my own personal standard and obviously playing with two world-class players like that shouldn’t be too hard to find a way to have success with those guys, so I have to do my part on that line,” Oshie said.
In the bottom six, forward Andre Burakovsky was moved up to the third line to skate next to center Lars Eller and forward Brett Connolly, while forward Carl Hagelin joined the fourth line with center Nic Dowd and forward Travis Boyd.
“Every time we’ve been playing together we’ve been having success,” Burakovsky said of his move up to the third line. “We have a good combination with a little bit of everything on that line. I feel really comfortable playing with those two guys.”
On defense, Jonas Siegenthaler was paired with veteran Brooks Orpik during practice Wednesday, a strong sign he will take Christian Djoos’s spot. Djoos had been averaging just 7:24 of ice time this postseason. Reirden said Siegenthaler is someone he feels comfortable with on the penalty kill.
“[He’s] a young defenseman that has got size and really good stick detail, understands the game,” Reirden said. “He has poise out there in heated situations, and obviously he hasn’t played playoff hockey before, but he’s a guy that with that added size can make plays under pressure and take a hit to make a play and fend off players a little bit easier. He’s strong around the net, so now we have a little bigger guy in that spot.”
With all the lineup changes, especially to the forward lines, Reirden emphasized the importance of depth scoring. The Capitals’ bottom-six forwards have combined for one goal — an empty-net tally from Eller that came in the Capitals’ 4-2 Game 1 win. In comparison, the top two lines have six goals through three games, with Backstrom leading the way with three. Kuznetsov has three assists.
“Depth scoring is important in every series, and it is important during the regular season, and maybe it’s just making some adjustments there as well,” Reirden said. “I was happy how it looked today in practice, and that was what we were looking for, and maybe that gives some guys a bit of a spark.”
While the Capitals’ stars have shown up in these Stanley Cup playoffs, production from the third and fourth lines was a key part in the team’s ability to win the franchise’s first title last season. Last postseason, the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards accounted for 23 even-strength goals in 24 playoff games. Earlier in the year, Reirden called the bottom-six production “paramount” for the team’s Stanley Cup success.
Connolly was particularly critical of his own play Wednesday. He led the bottom-six forwards during the regular season with 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists).
“I don’t think me and Lars have played our best these last three games, and Games 1 and 2 were our better games, but we had our chances and didn’t convert,” Connolly said. “Last game for whatever reason [we] couldn’t get anything going, and we are going to have to be better if we want to win the series, and we know that.”
Last year’s playoff hero, Devante Smith-Pelly, is now with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., after Washington waived him before the trade deadline in late February to clear salary cap space for the acquisition of Hagelin. Smith-Pelly scored seven playoff goals last year, including the game-tying goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against Vegas.
While Smith-Pelly still could be recalled, Reirden is looking for in-house solutions first.
“It’s a seven-game series, and you go a couple games without scoring, you want to, you know, stop the bleeding as much as you can, but our team is going to need some of that moving forward here if we want to win this series and then go on a deep run,” Connolly said. “We know that, and we’ve proven it in the past. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”
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