As the clocked ticked past the halfway point of Saturday's Game 5, fans groaned as Devante Smith-Pelly remained on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The Caps were down 3-2 and that combination just wasn't working. A change was needed. Late in the second period, Trotz moved Jakub Vrana up to the top line and that's when everything changed.
Just 52 seconds into the third period, Vrana's pass launched Evgeny Kuznetsov on a breakaway to tie the game at three. With less than five minutes to go, Vrana then scored what would be the game-winning goal to give the Caps a 4-3 lead.
With Tom Wilson set to miss Game 6 as the final game of his three-game suspension, the Caps still have a hole on the right wing at the top line. Obviously, that role now belongs to Vrana, right?
"[Vrana's] been up and down," Trotz said to the media on Sunday. "I'm not going to tell you exactly what I'm going to do, but we'll see where we are. For me, it's situational a little bit more. When you're looking for a bump, he's a real good guy to go there."
The issue is defense.
An Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line is a very dangerous offensive line, but playing in the defensive zone is not a strong suit for any of those three players. On Saturday this did not hurt the Capitals, but now that the series is shifting back to Pittsburgh for Game 6, the Penguins will have an opportunity to exploit this because of the line change rules..
In the NHL, the home team is given a chance to change lines during a stoppage in play after the visiting team. This allows the home team to see who your opponent has on the ice and put out whoever they want against them.
In Pittsburgh, the Penguins will get the opportunity to matchup against Washington's lines and you can bet Mike Sullivan will want to get Sidney Crosby's line out against an Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana line as much as possible.
So when Trotz says Game 6 will be a little more "situational," that's why.
"There's certain matchups that we had control of [in Game 5] that we don't have," Trotz said. "That does make a difference. It's not really fantasy hockey. It's real-life hockey, and you've got to try to make the right adjustments, and we do as a group. We talk about every situation, what seems to work and what might give us the best chance. Some nights, it works, and some nights, it doesn't, so we have to have a real good game plan to be really good. We've got a lot of areas that we can tighten up, and we've got a lot of players we can tighten up."
So does this mean we won't see Vrana at all on the top line even after a phenomenal Game 5 performance? No, but it does mean Trotz will have to be more selective in when he does put that line on. It may mean putting Vrana on the top line only in offensive zone starts and somebody else in the defensive zone. It may mean a constant situational rotation of two different players on the right of the top line all game long to prevent Pittsburgh from exploiting their matchup opportunities.
The Caps were able to take advantage of the matchups they wanted at home in Game 5. They cannot let Pittsburgh return the favor in Game 6.
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