It was as if the clock turned back to last season — or any of the past 10. There was Alex Ovechkin, stick raised, leg kicked up, fist pumping. And there was Nicklas Backstrom, arms raised as he skated to meet Ovechkin and envelop him in a hug. They have spent the past decade as the Capitals' dynamic duo, playing the majority of their careers on a line together. Reunited on Wednesday night, they picked up right where they left off.
Washington had played 22 games with Ovechkin and Backstrom on separate lines, and with both players slumping and the team having lost three of four, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz returned to his tried and true pairing. The result was a rejuvenated top-six forward corps in Washington's 5-2 win over Ottawa.
After Backstrom and Ovechkin got a break from each other for the first quarter of the season, Trotz described the rekindling of their on-ice marriage as such: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be.”
“I don’t think there was any doubt,” Ovechkin said. “We understand each other, how we have to play. Obviously, we played [together] a long time. So I think it worked out perfectly today.”
Despite the Capitals' recent struggles, they entered the game just three points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division. Wednesday's win means Washington will maintain a hold on its playoff position with 25 points a quarter through the season, significant because, since the NHL expanded to 30 clubs in 2000, roughly 80 percent of playoff teams on Thanksgiving go on to make the postseason.
Against the Senators, the Capitals got some much-needed production out of their reconstructed top two lines. Ovechkin had been skating with center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Devante Smith-Pelly, but that trio entered without an even-strength point in its past six games. Backstrom's slump has been especially prolonged — just four points and no goals in the past 15 games. But when Trotz was asked Tuesday why he hasn't started a game with Ovechkin and Backstrom on a line together, he coyly responded, "Just don't feel like it."
Trotz told players about the lineup shake-up Wednesday morning. Tom Wilson completed the top trio with Ovechkin and Backstrom. Kuznetsov then centered T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana.
“We needed that,” Backstrom said. “It wasn’t working the way we had played, so I’m sure the coaching staff felt that way, and they wanted to switch things up.”
Both lines scored in the first period to give the Capitals an early 2-0 lead. Less than a week ago, Vrana was a healthy scratch in Washington’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, breathing heavily through a lengthy conditioning skate in the thin Denver air as Trotz tried to send a message that he wanted to see more from the 21-year-old rookie. Though Washington lost Monday’s game against Calgary, Vrana’s play was a bright spot; he collected the primary assist on the Capitals’ only goal. He turned that into a promotion back into the top-six forward corps against the Senators. Vrana went to the front of the net and then punched in the rebound from a Kuznetsov shot to lift the team to a 1-0 lead 15:21 into the game.
The long-awaited Ovechkin-Backstrom connection came next. In the last minute of the first period, Backstrom passed the puck up to Alex Chiasson as Washington broke out of its own zone. Chiasson hit Ovechkin in stride, springing him for a partial breakaway on Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. With five seconds left until intermission, Ovechkin's shot went off the crossbar and in the net, snapping a six-game goal drought.
"That's something they've developed over a long time, and just naturally, their skill sets complement each other," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "I think they've been with each other so long that it's just instinct now of where the other one is going to be, what areas of the ice they look for. They read well off each other because they've been together for a long time. No surprise that they got on the board."
That was the 218th time Backstrom has assisted on a goal by Ovechkin. Backstrom often has the defensive responsibility of going head-to-head with the opponent’s top trio, so he gets considerably more defensive zone starts than Kuznetsov. But while that may not naturally suit Ovechkin’s game, it wasn’t an issue against Ottawa; the line with Derick Brassard was kept in check all game. Washington started to look like its old self for stretches of the game, putting together extended offensive zone shifts as a way to wear down its opponent.
The Capitals continued to build on their lead in the second period, adding a power-play goal by Kuznetsov for his second point of the game. Then 9:55 into the period, Vrana unfurled a shot that seemed to magically disappear. The puck had gotten past Anderson, wedged underneath the cage’s water bottle but nevertheless inside the net to give Washington a 4-0 lead. After several seconds of confusion, the goal horn went off and Vrana shrugged with a smile.
It was just that kind of a night for Washington’s new top two lines.
“When they change the lines, it always is a little bit of a wake-up call that things aren’t working and we’ve got to find something that can stick and work,” Oshie said. “Tonight it did.”