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Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

Oshie is out, Smith-Pelly is in for Game 5: What that means for the Caps’ offense

ARLINGTON – The Capitals forward lines will look very different when they take the ice for Game 5 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. T.J. Oshie will be out after suffering an upper-body injury late in Game 4 while Devante Smith-Pelly, who was called up from the Hershey Bears on Friday, will be in.

“I do expect him to go right into the lineup,” head coach Todd Reirden said.

Smith-Pelly was one of the team’s playoff heroes in its 2018 Stanley Cup run, scoring seven goals in 24 games. After a rocky regular season, he was sent down to Hershey prior to the NHL trade deadline where he has scored six goals and eight assists in 20 games.

“To get his game back to where it was last year around this time, it was important for him to play a lot of minutes,” Reirden said. “He went down to Hershey, and he played a lot of minutes, helped them have success, helped them get into the playoffs. When an injury and a chance for him to step into our lineup was available, then we were going to recall him. That's been our plan all along. Now he'll get that opportunity."

Whether the Caps are getting playoff Smith-Pelly or the player who struggled this season remains to be seen, but his pending return seems to have provided a boost to the locker room.

“He was with us all the way last year, so that’s huge,” Chandler Stephenson said. “He knows playoff hockey.”

“He can step up in the important moments,” Jakub Vrana said. “He showed it last year and we’re happy to have him back.”

Getting that boost from Smith-Pelly is important for the team after losing one of its leaders and locker room personalities in Oshie.

Reirden said Oshie was still meeting with doctors and could not give a definitive timeline yet. He did say, however, that Oshie was out indefinitely and would not be playing Saturday.

"He's certainly, I feel, one of the top leaders in the entire league,” Reirden said. “Not just with how he plays, who he is as a human being on the ice, off the ice, role model. You can go on a lot of different ways with the type of person that T.J. Oshie is and not having him around your players is not great. That loss will be felt.”

The Hurricanes certainly will not be crying over the loss of Oshie, however, and it falls now on Reirden to adjust. That will be no easy task.

The Caps have been held to one goal in the past two games, have gotten virtually no secondary scoring in the first four games of the series and now will be without the team’s second-leading goal scorer from the regular season.

“It has been top heavy,” Reirden said of the offense. “Just even 5-on-5 scoring is not where we need it to be and particularly, obviously, the last two games. We've got to find ways to generate offense. It's always tougher to create in the playoffs. You know, teams don't give up quite as much on the rush. They're a lot more committed to not giving up odd-man rushes to the opposition. We've got to find a way to get in on the forecheck more and impose a little bit more of a physical style of play on their defense and that comes with our puck management and putting pucks in behind them. Then when we have space, we've got to use it.”

Friday’s practice was an optional skate meaning we did not get to see any lines or how Reirden may be planning to shift the offense. With Oshie out, this could give Reirden an opportunity to reunite the Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson line that was so effective in last year’s postseason. Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly and Carl Hagelin, meanwhile, seem like the most likely candidates to move into a top-six role in Oshie’s absence.

Washington struggled immensely trying to replace a top-six right wing early in the season when Tom Wilson missed 16 games due to a suspension. Reirden tried to plug in Connolly, Chandler Stephenson and Dmitrij Jaskin, among others. Nothing seemed to work until Wilson returned.

The addition of Hagelin at the trade deadline means Washington is dealing with more offensive depth now than when Wilson was out. Plus, past experiences both from this season’s multiple injuries and last postseason give the team confidence that it can overcome any loss to the roster.

“We've been in situations where we've lost one of our leaders,” Vrana said. “We have a pretty good group of players here and anybody can fill-in and bring their A-games to the game."

“I think just a handful of games where we actually had our actual opening day roster that we wanted to have in front of us,” Reirden said. “It's something we've gone through a lot this year. We've done a good job, our team has of stepping up in those situations and taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Smith-Pelly will likely slot into the bottom-six upon his return to the lineup. Reirden acknowledged it had been a while since Smith-Pelly had played in the NHL and said he would ease him back in. But he is still expecting him to make a big impact, regardless of what line he plays on.

Reirden hopes that Smith-Pelly’s playing style can help improve the team in some of the areas it has struggled in the past two games.

"I don't think we've been as physical on our forecheck as we could have hoped after four games of evaluating,” Reirden said. “Some of it is that we're not getting in enough to forecheck and when we are, we haven't been as physical as maybe we have been in past series in a prior time. This is an impact that [Smith-Pelly] can have. They're a high shot-volume team as we talk about, so in D-zone coverage he's an excellent shot-blocker, pays the price that way. And when things get more difficult, he seems to relish in that and step up to the plate and obviously delivered some big goals for us. Those are some things we're looking for.”

But Washington’s success will not be dependent solely on the addition of Smith-Pelly. The rest of the forwards know they have to step up as well.

“I haven’t found the net lately, I know that,” Vrana said who has yet to score this series. “I’ve been working on it in today’s practice and tomorrow is a new game. Come with a positive mind and go period by period and focus on winning the game.”

“I think there's another level from everybody,” Reirden said. “Some guys have played better than others, but I don't think we're at our peak by any means yet.”

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T.J. Oshie doesn't believe shootouts should dictate results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

T.J. Oshie doesn't believe shootouts should dictate results in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

T.J. Oshie is no stranger to success in shootouts, especially in big games. Namely, his performance in the 2014 Sochi Olympics against Russia earned him that reputation.

If the shootout style was ever brought to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the NHL, there's a chance that Oshie's name would once again be called upon. However, the Capital isn't set on that scenario becoming a reality. 

As of now, playoff matchups head into as many overtimes as needed rather than a shootout. While that can be draining for players, Oshie believes it is a more genuine way to determine results in the postseason. Hockey is a sport that forces a team to come together as a whole, and he feels that shootouts take that away.

“Selfishly I’d love to see it. But I just look back and see some of the games that went to five overtimes and played past midnight," Oshie told NHL on NBC during a re-airing of his performance in the 2014 Olympics. “In the playoffs you need everyone on the ice, everyone doing their job. The shootout just feels a little bit more one-on-one.”

"So I don’t think it has a place in playoffs," he added.

As Oshie noted, he could see the fun and excitement in having shootouts in the playoffs due to his personal success experiences in those moments. Yet, his time in postseason runs, including Washington's 2018 championship has given him a larger perspective on the grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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The Capitals' Stanley Cup run was filled with grueling moments, but the success came from the team's effort altogether. Individual performances sparked big moments, but the Capitals were only as good as the sum of all their parts. To take that away in the biggest of moments is something that Oshie sees as wrong for the sport and the players who worked hard to get there.

“It’s just, after winning, I think you realize how much you need everybody playing well and so I think everyone deserves to play in those big moments," Oshie said.

So, while Oshie loves participating in late-game heroics, he'll take his chance at an overtime goal rather than a shootout. He does, however, understand that the continuation of the golden goal format could lead to more games with multiple extra periods. Though he is okay with those happening in place of a shootout, he also knows that he probably just talked himself into a lot more of those situations in the future.

“Watch I’ll go to like a five-overtime game and be dying an need an IV," Oshie joked. "And maybe change my tune.”

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T.J. Oshie had no nerves entering shootout with Russia in 2014 Sochi Olympics

T.J. Oshie had no nerves entering shootout with Russia in 2014 Sochi Olympics

As the United States and Russia entered the shootout period of the 2014 Olympic Games preliminary matchup tied 2-2, there was plenty of tension and nerves in Sochi.

T.J. Oshie, who was sent out for the first attempt, had the right to be as nervous as anyone. Skating on to the ice, he had the weight of a nation on his shoulders in a game that carried a history stemming from the Miracle on Ice. Yet, Oshie was as cool as the ground he was on. Rather than thinking about any outside noise, his only focus was on what he was going to do with the puck.

“Just my move. There probably wasn’t a time I was more confident than my first shot. I knew off the hop that I wanted to go five hole and that’s really all I had my mind made up for," Oshie told NHL on NBC during the re-airing of the infamous game on Saturday. "The first shot I was ready to go. I was excited to go out there and shoot first and put us up one.”

Oshie did just that on his first shot, giving the United States early momentum in the shootout. He would once again have his name called upon for the fourth attempt of the period. Though he was no longer setting the tone for the entire period, this is where Oshie more pressure.

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It wasn't solely because of the situation, but rather because he didn't want to lose the opportunity to shoot again down the line.

“I was most nervous for my second one because I felt if I missed I wouldn’t be going anymore," Oshie said.

He did miss the shot, but it was not the end for him. Rules allowed the U.S. to send the same player out there for each of the following rounds if they wanted, and head coach Dan Bylsma opted to stick with Oshie.

The rest is history, as in the eighth round Oshie's ability to find the back of the net ended up being the game-winner for the United States.

Despite the circumstances, Oshie never felt too nervous throughout the shootout period. Remaining calm and focusing on what he needed to do with his stick, he helped etch a spot for himself in the most memorable moments the sport of hockey has had to offer.

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