A bad first period prompted Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz to go to his Plan B, mixing up his lines as if he were trying to find the right combination of puzzle pieces. He had kept the lines stable throughout most of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but after the New York Rangers scored in the first minute Sunday night, Trotz made his changes, rolling out Marcus Johansson with center Nicklas Backstrom and winger Alex Ovechkin.
That move bumped winger Joel Ward to center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jason Chimera’s second line, which was ultimately the most successful experiment. The trio accounted for all three of the Capitals’ goals — each scored once — in a 4-3 loss to the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After a postseason of predictability with the trios up front, Trotz used at least seven line combinations Sunday, though some of the changes were likely because of winger Andre Burakovsky being “banged up” and having an equipment issue, which caused him to leave the bench in the second period. Other changes likely were situational, needing to rest a certain forward after a power play or penalty-kill sequence.
“Trying to get a response,” Trotz said. “. . . I sort of had Plan B set up if we didn’t get off to a great start, and we used it real quick.”
Trotz shuffled the lines constantly in the regular season. He mixed up the fourth line regularly, and the top-line right wing was a revolving door — eight skaters played beside Ovechkin and Backstrom at some point. But the postseason had been a time of consistency, as Ovechkin and Backstrom were regularly beside Ward, who had played well and delivered timely goals in Game 7 of the first round against the New York Islanders and Game 1 of this series.
Aside from forward Eric Fehr’s injury in Game 3 against the Islanders — which bumped Burakovsky into the lineup and led to Trotz rejiggering the bottom-six — and the fourth-line flip-flopping of Glencross and Michael Latta, the lines had stayed the same.
“I think everybody in here can play with everybody,” Johansson said. “We all know each other really well out there. Sometimes a coach has to do that to get a spark or make something happen.”
Chimera compared the previous familiarity to the comfort of coming home to the same wife every night. But Trotz made the changes and eventually got the boost he was looking for. After the Capitals fell into an early 2-0 hole, they outshot the Rangers 28-8 in the second and third periods.
“When you’re down, you’ve got to do something,” Ward said. “You’ve got to find a way. Obviously, what we were doing wasn’t working. We were down by a couple, so we just had to do something to change it up.”
The Kuznetsov line combined for 15 shots on goal. The trio hadn’t practiced together recently, and while Ward and Chimera have a lot of experience as linemates, the three together had only shared the ice for 12 minutes 38 seconds this season, according to puckalytics.com. Kuznetsov said the sudden change wasn’t a difficult adjustment, and while the Capitals were encouraged by their late scoring push, they would’ve liked for it to have come sooner.
“It’s not hard for our team to switch the lines,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s pretty easy for us. We’re a great team and great people and we have the same language. We talked about how we wanted to play, and that’s why we showed character in the third period.”