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Alex Ovechkin practices on the Capitals third line in advance of Game 5 against the Penguins

Alex Ovechkin practices on the Capitals third line in advance of Game 5 against the Penguins

With the Caps struggling to score and facing elimination, Coach Barry Trotz made a couple of tweaks to his forward lines ahead of a pivotal Game 5 on Saturday night.

On Friday morning, Alex Ovechkin practiced with the third line alongside Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Meantime, Ovechkin’s spot on the first line was filled by Andre Burakovsky, who joined Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

The Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams second line remained unchanged, while the fourth line consisted of mainstays Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik, with the spare wingers rotating in.

Trotz said flipping Ovechkin and Burakovsky was designed to jumpstart the Caps’ scuffling offense while simultaneously spreading the team’s weapons more evenly throughout the top three lines. It could also create matchup headaches for Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan.

[Related: Sidney Crosby practices, won't rule himself out for Game 5]

Through four games against the Penguins, the Capitals have scored nine goals despite outshooting the Penguins 142-93. Only the Blues, with eight in four games against the Predators, have scored fewer goals in the second round.   

“We talked about getting a little more production through the length of our lineup,” Trotz said. “Our third group has been really good for us, they just haven’t hit the back of the net a whole lot.”

Enter Ovechkin, who also may have been in need of a fresh perspective. He has one goal in the series, which the Caps trail 3-1. In Game 4, the Caps’ captain had as many shots on goal—two— as he did minor penalties.

After Wednesday’s loss, a dejected Ovechkin shouldered the blame for his pointless performance. He reiterated those sentiments on Friday.

“I just don’t control the puck at all,” Ovechkin said. “Again, blame on me. I have to be better. If I have a chance to do something, I have to do that.”

[Related: Trotz calls out 'top guys' after Game 4]

As for changing lines, Ovechkin said: “It’s a just a situation where you want to switch up the lines and get better, I hope. I hope it’s going work. Just try to get three lines scoring chances.”

He added: “We here [to do] whatever it takes to get the win and move forward. I don’t think it’s to send a message or something. …I hope it’s going to work. I hope it’s going to work well, we going to produce and we going to score and we going win.”

Eller said he thinks the revamped third line boasts a good “mix of assets.”

“Me and Tom are going get inside the blue line and get the puck to Ovi,” Eller said. “He’s going to shoot and we’re going to go to the net and get rebounds and second opportunities. We have a good mix of assets to make it a really good line.”

Oshie said he came to the rink Friday expecting changes.

“We should be putting some pucks in the net [or] at the very least getting some good zone time and some scoring chances, and for whatever reason, we haven’t found a way to get there,” he said. “So, we’ll have a little change, and hopefully we can elevate our game where it needs to go.”

Will the changes do the trick? That’s unclear.

But we know this much: Trotz remains steadfast in his belief that the team’s big name players must come through if the Caps are going to extend their season.

“I heard some of [Ovechkin’s] comments after the game [Wednesday], and he was disappointed in his game,” Trotz said. “And that’s good for him to man up there. But the bottom line is we’re going to need him to be really good.”

“So,” Trotz continued, “he’s got to respond this next game and be a difference-maker for us. We need contributions from everybody in our lineup. We need our top players to be the best players and that goes for everybody from our goaltender right through our lineup, forwards and defense. Obviously, we don’t have any wiggle room.”

Related: Don Cherry goes on rant about Nick Bonino's embellishment in Game 4 

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

On Saturday, the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals faced off against one of the hottest young teams in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was viewed as a marquee matchup and it certainly lived up to its billing with both teams battling in a tight, well-played game.

In the end, Toronto walked away as the 4-2 victors in one of their better wins of the young season, but not everyone left that game impressed.

A team that already boasted super-star talent Auston Matthews added John Tavares in the offseason as a free agent giving the Maple Leafs a formidable one, two punch at center. For most of the game, the Caps were able to shut down that center tandem.

Lars Eller was asked after the game how the Caps were able to keep the Leafs’ big stars in check and he indicated that perhaps Tavares and Matthews were not as formidable a pair as they had been made out to be.

“We’re used to playing against [Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin],” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there so it’s not that special. It’s a good team like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I think.”

Not surprisingly, that quote caught Toronto’s attention, especially forward Nazem Kadri.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Kadri called Eller’s comments “bulletin board material.”

With 12 points in seven games, the Maple Leafs currently boast the top record in the league. Toronto is far from perfect, however, and their defense remains a major question mark in whether this team is a true Stanley Cup contender.

But as to whether or not they are a playoff team? That seems like a pretty safe bet.

The Caps and Maple Leafs will meet twice more this season on Jan. 23 and Feb. 21. Both games are in Toronto.  

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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