The regular season is over, the time for experimenting is done. The playoffs are finally upon us and the Capitals are going to have to be at their best in order to win the Stanley Cup, and that includes in their lineup. A team as deep was Washington has plenty of options of who to plug into the lineup, but now it is time to put out the best options available.
Here's what my optimal lineup would look like heading into Round 1.
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Lars Eller - Ilya Kovalchuk
Richard Panik - Nic Dowd - Garnet Hathaway
13th forward: Travis Boyd
Eller is not available for Game 1, but when he returns he obviously will take back his spot at center on the third line.
This one's not that hard. On the top line, some may quibble with Kuznetsov considering his inconsistent play over the course of the season and in the round robin, especially in the wake of Todd Reirden reuniting the Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie line against the Boston Bruins. My feeling on that trio is that, while it was great a few years ago, in this day and age of the NHL it is too slow. Take the New York Islanders, as an example. Is there anyone on tjat line that can keep up with a player like Mathew Barzal? That would be a tough matchup. I'm not saying they can never play together or be an effective line, it's a good option to have if you need to change things up in a game, but I would not look to it as my go-to top line.
Kuznetsov has to be better in the defensive zone, but I still look to him as the best option on the top line at this point.
The rest of the lines are pretty obvious. The only other perhaps debatable pick is Boyd as my first player to plug into the lineup. The team's first-round draft pick from 2019, Connor McMichael, is with the team in Toronto and people want to see him play, but in all honesty, he would not be my first, second or perhaps even third choice. McMichael is a 19-year-old who weighs 181 pounds and has no NHL experience and you want to plug him into the lineup for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Adjusting to the NHL is much more difficult than people realize and this is not a situation that would set McMichael up for success.
Boyd is the pick here. He has been the 13th forward for much of the season and has remained productive when called upon, scoring three goals and seven assists in 24 games. He also scored a goal in one of his two appearances in the round robin.
Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Brenden Dillon - Dmitry Orlov
Jonas Siegenthaler - Nick Jensen
7th defenseman: Martin Fehervary
Carlson's status heading into the playoffs remains unclear, but it should come as no surprise to see him on the top pair here.
When Kempny is at his best, he and Carlson are a great top defensive pair. We have not seen Kempny and Carlson together at all in the round robin, but Kempny looks more composed than he did during the regular season. Whether he continues to look that way in the playoffs remains to be seen, but having seen Kempny-Carlson in the past, that is definitely the team's best defensive pairing.
I am very skeptical of Orlov playing on the right. He is a left-shot defenseman so it is not his natural side and he did not look comfortable there when Reirdien plugged him on the right side during the regular season. I am not sure he is a great fit, but Nick Jensen is so much better on the third pair than the second so I will trust the coaches and put Orlov on that pair with Dillon.
The one player whose name you may notice is missing is Radko Gudas. Gudas' play has deteriorated over the course of the season. At one point, he looked like the best option to play the right side of the second defensive pair. Now, however, he entered the round robin as the team's No. 7. He played the first two games due to Carlson's injury and gave up an egregious turnover against the Philadelphia Flyers that led to a goal. He was replaced by the rookie Martin Fehervary in the next game.
Fehervary played only 15:14 against the Boston Bruins, but recorded a game-high seven hits and looked comfortable playing on the right, which is important considering Gudas is a righty. Based on what we saw from Gudas in the Philadelphia game vs. Fehervary in the Boston game, I would think Fehervary is the better option. The only caveat to this is that if the team is in a heavy, more physical matchup, Gudas may seem like the safer pick, but Fehervary has shown he is not afraid of a physical game.
Starter: Braden Holtby
Backup: Vitek Vanecek
Holtby as the starter is not even worth discussing with Samsonov out. The question is between Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. I see the ceiling for both players being about the same as NHL backups. Copley has the experience and managed a 16-7-3 record with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA in the NHL just last season, but I did not think he looked all that comfortable in net. Many of his best saves in the season were created by his own misplays or slow reactions. He was a fine, dependable backup, but at the very least his play left the door open for someone to supplant him and someone did in Vanecek.
Vanecek was the better goalie in Hershey this season and Reirden made the gutsy call of making Vanecek the backup. Not being at practice, I can't see what Reirden sees, but I have seen both netminders play in the past and I have enough questions about Copley that Reirden's decision to name the inexperienced Vanecek as the backup is enough reason for me to think he is the better option.
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