As the Washington Capitals await word from team physicians about forward T.J. Oshie, they’ve made one thing clear: It’s not good.
Oshie was pushed into the boards in the third period of Thursday’s Game 4 of this first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, and he was clutching his right arm as he left the ice in apparent pain. Asked whether there’s a chance Oshie will play again this postseason, Coach Todd Reirden said a more specific timetable will be revealed in the near future but for now he’s “out indefinitely.”
It’s evident that Oshie won’t be available for at least the rest of this series, which is tied at two games apiece. If the Capitals hope to play in another one, they’ll have to get scoring from elsewhere in the lineup. That was a problem even before Oshie, who scored 25 goals this season, got hurt. Washington hasn’t gotten any production from its bottom two lines other than an empty-net tally from center Lars Eller, and it hasn’t scored a five-on-five goal in the past two games, both losses.
“Yeah, it has been top-heavy,” Reirden said. “We’ve got to find ways to generate offense. It’s always tougher to create in the playoffs. You know, teams don’t give up quite as much on the rush. They’re a lot more committed to not giving up odd-man rushes to the opposition. We’ve got to find a way to get in on the forecheck more and impose a little bit more of a physical style of play on their defense, and that comes with our puck management and putting pucks in behind them.
“Then when we have space, we’ve got to use it. That’s been a recipe for us that’s been successful in the past, and then we start to get some offensive-zone time and we can start to create momentum in the game.”
For a potential boost to their depth scoring, the Capitals recalled forward Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday, and Reirden said he’ll be in the lineup for Game 5, presumably in a fourth-line role. Smith-Pelly scored seven goals during Washington’s Stanley Cup run last year, equaling his regular season total, but he struggled this season with four goals and four assists in 54 games. When the team needed to clear salary cap space for the trade-deadline acquisitions of forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen, Smith-Pelly was waived and then sent down to the American Hockey League, where he had six goals and eight assists in 20 games for Hershey.
Smith-Pelly was a popular figure in Washington’s dressing room, so his return could provide an emotional lift for a team dealing with consecutive defeats along with the loss of Oshie.
“That will be a nice little pick-me-up for the guys,” forward Chandler Stephenson said. “You never want to be up two and give back two and now we’re in a best-of-three, so I think just having him here will kind of lighten the mood a little bit.”
And while it might be unfair to expect Smith-Pelly to immediately get on the score sheet, he has had a knack for rising to the occasion of the playoffs throughout his career and could bring more physicality to the Capitals.
“I don’t think we’ve been as physical on our forecheck as we could have hoped after four games of evaluating,” Reirden said. “Some of it is that we’re not getting in enough to forecheck. And when we are, we haven’t been as physical as maybe we have been in past series in a prior time. This is an impact that he can have. [Carolina is] a high-shot-volume team, so in [defensive]-zone coverage, he’s an excellent shot-blocker, pays the price that way.”
The top candidates to replace Oshie in the top-six forward corps are wingers Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky and Hagelin, none of whom has a point in this series. Connolly and Jakub Vrana both had more than 20 goals and 45 points during the regular season, making their struggles especially glaring.
“In playoffs, it’s the little things that can decide a game,” Vrana said Friday. “You’re going to go hard to the net and try to provide offense there. Sometimes the goal isn’t going to be pretty. It can be rebounds; it can be tips. You just have to get into those areas and try to somehow attack their goalie and attack their net. Yeah, I haven’t found the net lately; I know that. I’ve been working on it in today’s practice, and tomorrow is a new game.”
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s play has also been problematic. He was the Capitals’ leading scorer last postseason, and while he has three assists through these first four games, what Reirden thought of his play in Game 4 was evident in the roughly 16 minutes of ice time he got, down more than two minutes from his regular season average. There’s a long list of players from whom Washington needs more to win two of the next three games, and Kuznetsov is on it.
“There’s lots of things that go on within your team,” Reirden said. “Sometimes it’s play, sometimes it’s health, sometimes it’s a combination. There’s lots of things that go on that go into certain decisions that happen during the game. That’s where his minutes ended up, and I expect him to be better in Game 5. … Some guys have played better than others, but I don’t think we’re at our peak by any means yet.”
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