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Capitals riding on depth to even out lines as team pushes toward consistency

Ilya Kovalchuk brings a depth to the bottom-six that will even out the lines as playoffs loom. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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WINNIPEG — The Washington Capitals opened the season focused on getting more production from their third and fourth lines. Now, about to play its 64th regular season game, the team is concentrating on the same thing.

The Capitals are hoping 36-year-old veteran winger Ilya Kovalchuk, acquired at the trade deadline, adds an extra scoring presence to accompany Lars Eller and Carl Hagelins.

“What I think it does for us is it frees up our other lines,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “You know, he is someone that has the respect of the opposition every night now. Now they are concerned about matchups, with him, things he’s been able to do, his resume speaks for itself as him being a dangerous player and I liked that he is physical.”

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Kovalchuk’s attributes were clear during multiple shifts of Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout win against the Winnipeg Jets. One example was how the third line set up Garnet Hathaway’s second-period goal on the ensuing shift. Kovalchuk’s line got three scoring chances right at the net, pushing the offense forward. The fourth line then got in the right positions on the faceoff and caused a turnover, which allowed Hathaway to end his 24-game goal drought. It was the fourth line’s first goal since early January. Then, as a reward, Reirden went right back to the third line after Hathaway’s goal.

“When a line plays well, often I’ll go back to them right away, and that is a signal that they earned another opportunity and that doesn’t just go to [Nicklas] Backstrom or [Evgeny] Kuznetsov’s line, that includes everybody,” Reirden said. “Gave me a good opportunity to that line … they are going to be used and we need them.”

Kovalchuk finished with 14:39 of ice time, Eller with 16:52 and Hagelin with 16:07. Eller has remained consistent even during the third line’s recent struggles, and Hagelin also has rediscovered his offensive prowess with four points in the past six games.

“I’ve never obviously played with Lars, but he’s very smart centerman, a really good two-way guy,” Kovalchuk said. “I think we will be a good line.”

After a lack of bottom-six depth hindered the Capitals in their first-round playoff exit to Carolina last season, they now believe they have enough to carry them through the postseason; it’s just about finding the right chemistry and combinations. For now, Kovalchuk will be on the third line and Hathaway, Richard Panik and Nic Dowd will be on the fourth line.

Reirden said he has spent some time looking at how other teams have sustained success in building their Stanley Cup-winning rosters, and he specifically looked at St. Louis last season.

“They won last year with their four lines and [now it’s] how do you get four lines that can each add something different,” Reirden said. “It’s a little bit of a blueprint, and it’s a copycat league … that is something that we wanted to try to add, was a little more depth and that’s where we started last night with those combinations.

The Capitals are on a two-game trip, playing the Jets on Thursday night at the Bell MTS Place, then the Minnesota Wild on Sunday. Ilya Samsonov will be in net against the Jets, while Braden Holtby is expected to get the nod against the Wild.

“This is our group and this is what we are going with and now we know there isn’t any more moving parts … this is our group we believe in and we think has a really good chance,” Reirden said.

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