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Capitals’ forward depth is starting to pay dividends

Washington Capitals center Chandler Stephenson (18) celebrates his goal with center Travis Boyd (72) and left wing Brendan Leipsic (28) during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The play was a perfectly executed tic-tac-toe sequence Friday night, and the Capital One Arena crowd roared its approval. Brendan Leipsic flew down the left wing and sent a perfect cross-ice pass onto the stick of Travis Boyd, who dished the puck to a trailing Chandler Stephenson, who beat Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark to light the goal lamp and give the Capitals a 2-0 first-period lead.

The score, part of a four-goal first period, keyed the Capitals’ 6-1 win Friday night, a performance that showcased the team’s improved bottom-six depth. Leipsic later scored the Capitals’ fourth goal — his first as a Capital — at the 10:44 mark of the first period on a night the fourth line contributed two goals and three assists.

The second line also was strong, with Jakub Vrana scoring twice and Tom Wilson with a goal and two assists.

Through October, the Capitals relied heavily on their core leadership group, with Alex Ovechkin leading the team with 11 goals in the first 14 games. Defenseman John Carlson had a stellar month, recording 23 points (seven goals and 16 assists) as he set the franchise record for points in a month for a defenseman. He was named the NHL’s first star for October and was the first defenseman to earn the honor since Calgary’s Mark Giordano five seasons ago.

Those contributions were a big reason the Capitals became the first team in the NHL to win 10 games, the first time that has happened since Washington and Montreal both reached the mark Nov. 1, 1991.

But on Friday, it was the Capitals’ bottom line that seized the spotlight. Coach Todd Reirden said he was impressed with the speed and their efforts in the defensive zone. Goaltender Braden Holtby called the fourth line “phenomenal.”

“I mean obviously the big dogs, they are big dogs for a reason, but they aren’t going to be able to score every night, and I think the mark of a good team is a team that has that ability when your first two lines maybe aren’t on their ‘A game’ and you can get a third or fourth line that can step up and contribute,” Boyd said. “It was a great team effort, all four lines.”

Against Buffalo, the fourth line was without Nic Dowd (lower body) who was hurt in the team’s 4-3 overtime win in Toronto on Tuesday. Dowd is considered day-to-day, and it is uncertain if he will be available for Sunday’s game against the Calgary Flames. Dowd, who is a key contributor on the penalty kill and had two goals and one assist in 11 games, did not practice with the team Saturday.

Boyd has stepped up in his place. After making his season debut in Vancouver last week, Boyd has three assists in three games. Boyd was sent down to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., after failing to make the opening night roster. While in Hershey, the forward recorded six points (four goals and two assists) in three games.

“I can’t speak strongly enough about how he went down and played in Hershey,” Reirden said. “He was dominant, and it wasn’t close that he was the best player on that team.”

Last year, Boyd played in 53 games for the Capitals, with five goals and 15 assists. He was called up this year Oct. 18, after Richard Panik (upper body) was placed on long-term injured reserve. Panik is eligible to return for the Capitals’ game against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 11. When Panik returns, his salary cap figure will be back on the books, and the Capitals will have to make some lineup and roster decisions, specifically with Dowd, Boyd and Stephenson.

Boyd would have to clear waivers again if he has played nine games or has been with the Capitals for 30 days since his call-up.

“I want to show them what I can do,” Boyd said. “I want to show everyone what I can do. Hopefully I can continue to play well and continue to stay in the lineup as well.”

The team still has time to sort out its line combinations, which Reirden has continued to stress 15 games into the season. The team is still starting to build chemistry, incorporating the new players General Manager Brian MacLellan brought in during the offseason, which included Leipsic, Panik and Garnet Hathaway (who already has been moved up to the third line).

“We are in the middle of the process,” Reirden said. “Not even in the middle, but if you were to look at this to start the season, I think numbers-wise you would be happy with where we are at standing-wise.”

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Friday’s scores from around the NHL