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.
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.”
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.”