The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Capitals’ top line starting to jell after taking time to ‘talk things out’

The Capitals’ top line — Alex Ovechkin, left, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov — is still getting to know each other, but Thursday night’s win was a step forward. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The fourth and final goal showed it best. First, T.J. Oshie corralled a loose puck in the defensive zone, and then he flicked it ahead. It bounded off the boards and to Alex Ovechkin, already rumbling down the left side of the ice. Evgeny Kuznetsov kept pace, a two-on-one rush that brought the Verizon Center crowd to its feet.

When he got to the left faceoff circle, Ovechkin passed to Kuznetsov, and Chicago goaltender Scott Darling pivoted to his left, awaiting the shot. But Kuznetsov fired it back to Ovechkin just above the crease. With his body already beyond the goal line, Ovechkin scored at a seemingly impossible angle from the left with Darling sprawled on the other side of the net.

Ovechkin hugged Kuznetsov behind the goal. As Ovechkin skated back to the bench, Oshie was waiting for him, his glove outstretched for a fist bump.

The score restored a three-goal cushion for the Washington Capitals in a 4-1 win Thursday over the Chicago Blackhawks. More significantly, it illustrated the developing chemistry of a top line with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Oshie. Thursday night was the trio's best.

Oshie scored his first goal as a Capital, firing from the slot after a Kuznetsov feed on the power play. That was Kuznetsov’s first of two assists. Ovechkin had his second goal in the two games he has played. He took a game-high six shots on goal, and three of his attempts were blocked.

Neil Greenberg, breaks down the Washington Captials's offseason roster moves and whether the team has enough to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

“I think right now, we start feeling each other better, especially in the neutral zone,” Ovechkin said. “We have lots of talking out there, especially on the bench, about what we have to do.”

The communication took time to produce results. Oshie, new to the team and the system, found himself uncomfortable on the top line throughout the preseason. He’d have a scoring chance, but he was so concerned with getting Kuznetsov and Ovechkin the puck, he’d pass instead of shoot.

Oshie and Ovechkin talked in practice and on the bench during games about “those little small plays and those automatic plays,” Oshie said. Oshie won’t give all their secrets away, but those conversations were about situations: where Ovechkin wants him when he has the puck, where he wants him if he has a man on him and where Ovechkin wants him to go if he has time.

Through a handful of preseason games, Oshie said he found Ovechkin to be unselfish, which isn’t the reputation the prolific goal scorer has around the league.

“I’m all ears to hear what he wants me to do to make things easier for me on the ice,” Oshie said.

Said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz: “What happens with a line is, it needs some time to talk things out. I think there’s a mutual respect. A guy like T.J. and Ovi, who’s played in this league and scored so many goals — you know, you want to get the puck to him.

“Ovi’s come to him and said, ‘Hey, just make the right play. You’ve got a chance to shoot it this time, and if I get a chance to shoot it, I’m going to shoot it. Don’t worry about getting the puck to me. I’ll get it enough during the year.’ I think they’re just learning each other.”

Neil Greenberg, The Post's stats guru, breaks down the NHL's contenders and looks at the most intriguing story lines of the 2015-2016 season. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Now that the Capitals’ top line is coming off its best performance — and against the defending Stanley Cup champions — Trotz faces a quandary. All signs point to center Nicklas Backstrom’s return to the lineup being imminent, so where does he play now?

With Backstrom, who’s been recovering from a May hip surgery, cleared for contact earlier this week, Trotz didn’t rule out the possibility of him playing Saturday against Carolina. The more likely scenario is that he makes his debut at Calgary in the first of a three-game western Canada road swing.

Asked Thursday whether he would put Backstrom back on the first line, where he would instantly be asked to play a lot of minutes, Trotz said he wasn’t sure. On Thursday night, after Washington’s thumping of Chicago, Trotz said he would now be more hesitant to do that, meaning Backstrom could start as the second-line center, where Andre Burakovsky has played.

“You know, they have some chemistry,” Trotz said of his top line. “I think we’ll probably have a few different lines throughout the year.”

More Capitals coverage from The Post:

Holtby picks up where he left off last season

Thursday night: Caps come together to beat Chicago