If you thought Tom Wilson was nothing more than a mindless goon who added nothing but fists to the top line and who was riding the coattails of Alex Ovechkin to a career season, Game 4 proved otherwise.
With Wilson serving a three-game suspension, Devante Smith-Pelly skated in his spot on the right wing of the top line Thursday alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. The top line struggled immensely as neither Smith-Pelly nor Ovechkin managed any shots on goal at five on five play. For the game, Ovechkin had only two shot attempts, both misses.
The top line was outscored 1-0 and outshot 12-8.
Smith-Pelly will no doubt be the subject of criticism in the wake of this game and, by default, Barry Trotz for putting that line together and keeping it together.
Clearly, the chemistry wasn’t there and Smith-Pelly had a rough night. But at some point, a team needs its best players to perform like its best players. Playing with Smith-Pelly should not simply absolve Ovechkin from what was a bad game. If all it took was one linemate to completely erase him offensively, then Ovechkin is not the dynamic, play-making goal scorer that we all know him to be.
Ovechkin had a bad game. It happens.
The question now is what to do going forward. Who do you put on the top line?
I can hear the screams for Jakub Vrana or Shane Gersich, but there’s a problem with plugging either player there and no, I'm not simly referring to the fact that they are left shots.
Ovechkin's line is going to play against either Sidney Crosby’s line or Evgeni Malkin’s. Yes, Game 5 will be at home which means Trotz will have the second change, but he is not going to be able to get away from both Crosby and Malkin. Why? Because they play on the top two lines for Pittsburgh, and if you try to match up your top line against an opponent’s third or fourth line, then they are going to play third or fourth line minutes. You cannot allow your opponent to dictate how much ice time your best offensive players get.
Regardless of who Trotz wants to match Ovechkin up against, his line is still going to playing opposite a very offensively dangerous Penguins line and defensive play is not the strong suit of either Ovechkin or Kuznetsov. That means the Caps needs someone who can play the right side and play well in the defensive zone on the right wing to balance it out.
This is where the loss of Wilson really hurts because there are not many players who fit this bill. Vrana is not strong enough defensively and Gersich has four games of NHL experience to his name. It would be unreasonable to think either player can handle both the offensive responsibilities of playing with Ovechkin and the defensive responsibilities of shutting down either Crosby or Malkin.
No coach wants the entire lineup disrupted by the loss of one player, but the best option Trotz has is to switch up the second line of Chandler Stephenson, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and mix it with the top.
All three players are capable of strong defensive play. By moving that line, Trotz has a few options:
Ovechkin – Backstrom – Vrana
Stephenson – Kuznetsov – Oshie
Ovechkin – Kuznetsov – Oshie
Stephenson – Backstrom – Vrana
Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie
Stephenson – Kuznetsov – Connolly
You get the point.
The top line did not get the job done on Thursday, but fixing it is not as simple as plugging in just anyone at right wing. It's not just a matter of clicking offensively, it's also about playing well enough in the defensive zone so as not to get outscored.
If the Caps’ top line gets outscored by Pittsburgh’s, then ultimately it’s not helping the team win.