For as much as the Capitals’ fourth line has been a reliable trio to throw over the boards this season for coach Peter Laviolette, Sunday’s game against the Wild represented essentially a new start.
Johan Larsson made his Capitals debut (and played in his first game since Jan. 25) and center Nic Dowd returned from an injury that kept him out two weeks.
Those two, paired with Garnet Hathaway, joined together for the team’s new-look fourth line, one that will be expected to play against other team’s top lines for the rest of the regular season. But that's still their second challenge.
Their first is getting back up to speed and growing together with four weeks until the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
“This was our first practice today basically that (Larsson), Hath and I had as a line where he wasn’t in a blue jersey or I wasn’t in a blue jersey, or I wasn’t playing or he wasn’t playing,” Dowd said. “I played with Carl (Hagelin) for so long, (Axel Jonsson-Fjallby) came in and he has a little bit of what Carl brings to the game, so they’re a little bit similar — and he was a natural winger. “
In the early stages of the season, the line of Hagelin, Dowd and Hathaway was seemingly the only constant in the team’s lineup through a wave of injuries and coronavirus absences. When they were all healthy, they were almost never apart. And considering they almost exclusively started shifts in the defensive zone, their production and play were stellar.
Then Hagelin suffered a serious eye injury and in came Jonsson-Fjallby for a spurt. Larsson, on the mend from sports hernia surgery, was then acquired in a trade deadline deal with the Coyotes, and with both he and Dowd healthy, the line came together against the Wild.
“You know you have a little off there, maybe some shifts,” Larsson said Monday about his return. “Overall, I think I felt pretty good. Linemates was good, and communicating good. Felt pretty good. Comfortable.”
There’s still a learning curve, for not just Larsson, but for his two new linemates in getting to know what their new teammate brings to the lineup.
“I think he’s a skilled player,” Dowd said. “He can protect pucks in the offensive zone and create a little space for himself, which creates space for Hath and I. I think right now, I’m sure he’s just trying not to get overwhelmed with the systems and being in the right spot at the right time, not making mistakes.”
The other adjustment for Larsson specifically comes from moving from center to wing. In every game he’d played this season prior to Sunday, he’d taken at least nine faceoffs as a center in Arizona. In his Capitals debut, he took zero.
“Yeah it’s a little adjustment,” Larsson said. “But I’ve been playing wing back in the day, so it’s not too much. I feel like the linemates were good, communicating. So it wasn’t that big a deal.”
Dowd referenced the natural tendency to play down the middle that he’s seen in Larsson, but also knows he’d have himself too.
Laviolette and the Capitals have an abundance of centers on the NHL roster at the moment, which means some natural centers have to slide out to wing. While it’s certainly a positive for the Capitals to be that deep down the middle, especially considering the injuries they've had this season, it does require an adjustment for some.
“Imagine how tough it is,” Dowd said. “Guys like myself come back off an injury into the systems that I’ve been playing for two years, this guy’s come in and played a game with a new team and it’s been his first game in a long time — and he’s a center. That, sometimes and even last game and in practice today, I think his natural tendency is he wants to be down the middle.”
The Capitals have tried a few different forward combinations in the top nine over the last few games since the trade deadline, and appear ready to continue that trend as the season winds down.
But with the playoffs right around the corner, the new-look fourth line is one the Capitals are hopeful they don’t have to tinker with. Now, it’s just a matter of finding their rhythm.
“Coming back from injury is always hard, I haven't really done that,” Larsson said. “I’ve been having a couple skates and feeling more and more comfortable. As long as we go, I’m going to get more comfortable with the system and everything. I’m not too worried about that. Just going to get out there and give it all and don’t think too much.”