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Backstrom narrowing in on return to Caps

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Backstrom narrowing in on return to Caps

Capitals top-line center Nicklas Backstrom saw his hip surgeon on Tuesday and has been cleared for full contact, potentially opening the door for his return to the lineup before the end of the Caps’ season-opening four-game homestand.

“It’s always good to talk to guys who know about the injury,” said Backstrom, who has missed the Caps’ first two games after undergoing arthroscopic hip surgery on May 27. “We had a good chat and we’re both on the same page.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Backstrom will “probably not” be in the lineup when the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks  visit Verizon Center on Thursday night, but he did not completely rule it out.

“It’s probably going to be day-to-day,” Trotz said. “He got bumped a little bit today and we’ll see how he feels tomorrow. We’ll just sort of take it day by day. Obviously, when a guy gets cleared it falls into a shorter time period. Also, how he feels once you bump him around a little bit and check him out.”

Backstrom, who led the NHL last season with 60 assists, has been skating for roughly seven weeks and has been practicing with the Caps for the past week.

With Backstrom’s return imminent, the Capitals placed forward Sean Collins on waivers on Wednesday with the intent to assign him to the AHL Hershey Bears. Trotz said the team planned on recalling another forward from the Bears, just in case Jason Chimera (lower body) is unable to play on Thursday.

Backstrom hinted he might need another practice or two before giving a thumbs up to game action. The Caps conclude their homestand Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I haven’t played a game yet,” Backstrom said. “I haven’t had a chance to get the game on-ice conditioning. It’s a totally different thing to skate back and forth here and getting into a game. I have to feel comfortable out there, too, and that’s what I’m looking for.

“As of now, I’m feeling good, so we’ll see what happens.”

As for Chimera, Trotz said he expects the 36-year-old veteran to be in the lineup against the Blackhawks, who are in Philadelphia to take on the Flyers tonight on NHL Rivalry Night.

Chimera was involved in a high-speed collision with the net in the third period on a play in which Sharks forward Tommy Wingels was chasing him from behind.

“Yeah, I do,” Trotz said when asked if he thought Wingels deserved a penalty on the play. “But it doesn’t matter. They didn’t call it. I thought (Chimera) had a step on the guy and he sort of had him wrapped around.”

Trotz likened the state of his team to Chimera’s willingness to stay in Tuesday night’s game.

“You’re hurt, you’re not broke,” Trotz said. “That’s probably where we are today as a team. We got hurt last night (in a 5-0 loss) but we’re not necessarily broke. We just have to fight through.”

With Chimera unavailable, Trotz went with these line combinations at practice:

Alex Ovechkin – Evgeny Kuznetsov – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Andre Burakovsky – Justin Williams

Brooks Laich – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson

Stan Galiev – Michael Latta – Sean Collins

MORE CAPITALS: Ovechkin gives explanation for missing Sharks game

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How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

The Capitals boast a roster full of superstar forwards including players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not.

As a team, Columbus’ offensive output is more spread out among the team, except for one offensive focal point: Artemi Panarin.

Traded in the offseason to Columbus from the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin has proven this season to be a star in his own right rather than just someone hanging on to the coattails of his former linemate in Chicago, Patrick Kane.

Defensively, shutting down Panarin was priority No. 1 for Barry Trotz and company heading into their best-of-seven first-round playoff series

“We went into the series knowing fully well how good of a player Panarin is,” the Capitals head coach told the media via a conference call on Sunday. “He's a leader for them. It's no different than what they would do with Kuznetsov, Backstrom or [Ovechkin]. It's got to be a team game.”

Initially, things did not go well for the Capitals, as Panarin tallied two goals and five assists in the first three games. In Game 4 and Game 5, however, he was held off the scoresheet and finished with a plus/minus rating of -3.

For the series as a whole, Washington has actually done a good job of shutting Panarin down. Four of his seven points came on power play opportunities, meaning the Caps limited Columbus’ top forward to only three even-strength points in five games.

Washington’s strategy coming into the series was to give Panarin a healthy dose of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. At 5-on-5 play, no two defensemen have been on the ice against Panarin anywhere near as much as the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. That’s been true all series. The offensive line Panarin has been matched against, however, has changed.

In Game 1, the Caps’ second line of Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie matched primarily against Panarin’s line. That changed in Game 2. Since then, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on Panarin duty.

There are several ways to approach matching lines against an opponent. Backstrom is one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL. It makes sense for Trotz to want him out against Columbus’ most dangerous line. The problem there, however, is that Trotz was taking his team’s second line and putting it in a primarily defensive role.

In Game 1, Backstrom was on the ice for seven defensive zone faceoffs, 12 in the neutral zone and only two in the offensive zone.

The Capitals have an edge over Columbus in offensive depth, but you mitigate that edge if you force Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie, three of your best offensive players, to focus on shutting down Panarin.

Let’s not forget, Washington scored only one 5-on-5 goal in Game 1 and it came from Devante Smith-Pelly. They needed the second line to produce offensively so Trotz switched tactics and go best on best, top line vs. top line in a possession driven match up.

The strategy here is basically to make the opposing team's best players exhaust themselves on defense.

You can tell this strategy was effective, and not just because Panarin's offensive dried up. In Game 4, when the Blue Jackets could more easily dictate the matchups, Columbus placed Panarin away from the Caps’ top line, whether intentional or not.

Kuznetsov logged 7:27 of 5-on-5 icetime against Panarin in Game 4. Wilson (6:52), Oshie (6:46), Ovechkin (6:42) and Backstrom (6:01) all got a few cracks at Panarin, but nothing major. Those minutes are far more even than in Game 5 in Washington in which Ovechkin matched against Panarin for 12:45. Kuznetsov (12:42) and Wilson (12:30) also got plenty of opportunities against Panarin as opposed to Chandler Stephenson (2:10), Oshie (2:10) and Backstrom (2:01).

This is a match up the Caps want and the Blue Jackets are trying to get away from.

Trotz was asked about defending Panarin on Sunday.

“There's no one shadowing anybody,” Trotz said. “You know you want to take time and space from top players in this league, and if you do and you take away as many options as possible, you have a chance to limit their damage that they can do to you."

At a glance, this statement seems to contradict itself. You are going to take time and space away from Panarin, but you’re not going to shadow him? But in truth, this is exactly what the Caps are doing.

When the Caps’ top line matches against Panarin, if they continue attack and maintain possession in the offensive zone, that limits the time Panarin gets on the attack.

This will become more difficult on Monday, however, as the series shifts back to Columbus for Game 6. As the Blue Jackets get the second line change, just as in Game 4, you should expect to see Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella try to get his top line away from the Caps’ to avoid that matchup.

Shutting down Columbus’ power play and matching Panarin against both Ovechkin’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen pairing have been the keys to shutting him down. The Caps will need more of the same on Monday to finish off the series.

MORE CAPITALS vs. BLUE JACKETS:
How Nick Backstrom saved the Capitals in Game 5
Burakovsky done for first-round, but how much longer?
Capitals' penalty kill the biggest difference maker
 

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The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround

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The Caps' penalty kill has been a major factor in the series turnaround

For the Capitals to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the keys to the series was going to be the penalty kill. 

For the season, Columbus ranked only 25th in the league on the power play at 17.2-percent, but that number did not reflect the massive improvement the Blue Jackets made with their trade deadline acquisitions.

Since the trade deadline on Feb. 26, Columbus ranked seventh on the power play. The Caps were sixth with both teams converting 25.0-percent of the time.

Where Washington did have an edge, seemingly, was on the penalty kill. Unlike the power play, Columbus' penalty kill was consistently poor all season, finishing 27th in the NHL with a kill rate of only 76.2-percent. While not a strength by any means, the Caps were certainly better on the PK with a kill rate of 80.3-percent, good for 15th in the league.

With two power plays converting at the same rate, Washington had to be able to kill off more of the Blue Jackets' opportunities. They struggled to do that in Game 1 and Game 2.

The Caps were called for four penalties and gave up two power play goals in each of the first two games. Washington scored five power play goals in those games, but their advantage on special teams was mitigated by their inability to keep Columbus from converting. 

There are many reasons why the Caps were able to overcome the 0-2 series deficit and now sit just one win away from advancing to the second round. Chief among those reasons is the improved penalty kill. Since Game 2, Washington has not allowed a single power play goal. The PK has successfully killed off 13 straight penalties including five in Game 5.

"I think as a group, they've all stepped up," Barry Trotz said on a conference call with the media on Sunday. "I don't think I can single out anybody. They've all stepped up. The penalty kill is as good as the five guys that you have, your four and your goaltender. They've been very committed there."

In a series that has seen four out of five games go to overtime, it's not hard to recognize the impact even one goal can have on a game and, by extension, the series. Should the Caps go on to win the series, their ability to adjust their penalty kill to stop the Blue Jackets' suddenly potent power play will be one of the main reasons why.

Trotz would not go into specifics as to the adjustments the team made after Game 2, but did acknowledge the penalty kill has been a "major factor" in the Caps' turnaround this series.

But to finish the job, the penalty kill will have to continue adjusting.

"This is the time when we're still trying to tweak things," Trotz said. "They changed some things on their power play a little bit yesterday, so we'll look to maybe tweak a little bit with our PK."