We’ve seen this story before. With Tom Wilson suspended during the playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, the Caps struggled to find a right wing to play alongside Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Finally, Barry Trotz moved Jakub Vrana up to the top line during Game 5 and Vrana responded with a goal and two assists in a pivotal win.
With Tom Wilson now again suspended, the Caps struggled early to find a right wing to play alongside Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Finally, Todd Reirden moved Vrana up to the top line prior to Saturday’s game against the Calgary Flames and he again responded with a first-period goal.
Once Wilson returned last season, Vrana was moved back down to the second line where he remained the rest of the postseason. Even after Wilson was handed a 20-game suspension at the start of this season, Vrana was not the first guy moved up to the top line. It took nine games and three different line combinations before Vrana got his chance.
“It's nice,” Vrana said Sunday of his return to the top line. “I've been playing with those guys a little bit last year. I thought we had some chemistry. It can be really good offensively, you've just got to focus on our all-around game.”
That last part is the key.
The thing Wilson adds to the top line that no one has been able to do as well as he does is win puck battles. With his physical nature and large frame, Wilson is able to battle for pucks along the boards and in corners and create room for his dynamic linemates.
Vrana brings speed and offensive skill, but winning puck and board battles was not considered a particularly strong aspect of his game. That was, until Saturday.
“His compete on the puck is at a different level than it was at definitely during the season last year,” Reirden said. “I thought he started to get better with that as the playoffs went on last year.“
In Calgary, a feisty Vrana battled along the boards, generated turnovers and created offense for his line in a way we have not previously seen from him.
Vrana has the skill of a top-six forward, but the top line already has plenty of that with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. Getting time on the top line and staying there meant Vrana would have to provide what Wilson did, but in his own way.
“I have to,” Vrana said. “I'm not as big as Tom, I'm not as good a hitter as Tom so I'm just going to use my legs and use my speed, try to be first on those pucks and win those pucks.”
“Everyone has different ways of creating separation from opposition and the puck and he does it with speed and with a quick stick and other players do it physically,” Reirden said.
He also added, “I think [Vrana’s] been able to do a really good job in terms of creating turnovers in that way and getting us some offense as a result.”
Chandler Stephenson also scored in his first game on the top line. The important thing for Vrana to cement his position will be continuing to battle for those loose pucks and continue fighting along the boards
Wilson is now 10 games through his 20-game suspension and chances are he will get his spot on the top line back once he returns and gets back into game shape. At least now, however, Reirden knows he has options and a position that has been notoriously hard to fill for some time.
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