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Trotz unwilling to break up shut-down line

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Trotz unwilling to break up shut-down line

With Nicklas Backstrom back in lineup for tonight’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Capitals coach Barry Trotz could have played musical chairs and put four brand-new forward lines together.

Instead, he’ll keep the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie intact, as well as his checking line of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson when the Caps face the Carolina Hurricanes tonight (7 pm., CSN).

“Based on last game, there’s nothing wrong with the Ovi-Oshie-Kuzy line,” Trotz said Saturday morning.

But while Oshie, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov combined five points in the Caps’ 4-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night, it was the Caps’ third line that Trotz really wanted to keep together, especially after it held Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane silent.

RELATED: Backstrom returns as Capitals' second-line center

“With Chimmer’s speed, Willie’s heaviness and Beags’ determination, they’re a hard line to play against,” Trotz said.

“It’s nice for him to show that he’s keeping us together,” said Beagle, who turned 30 on Friday. “We feel like we’ve played well and we have more to give. It was a great task against a great No. 1 line. They threw about four different left wingers at us. That’s when you know you’re doing your job.”

Beagle said playing third-line center has always been his “dream job” and on Thursday night Wilson’s physicality indirectly led to the Capitals’ first goal.

On his fourth shift of the game, Wilson drilled an unsuspecting Toews with a hard, clean shoulder check and his way back up the ice Blackhawks forward Viktor Tikhonov threw him to the ice and picked up an interference penalty.

Seventeen seconds later, Oshie scored his first goal of the season on the power play.

“That’s definitely the result of a good, hard hockey play,” Wilson said. “I’m not really focusing on going after Toews. I just found myself in a good position to make a good body check. It happens and one of their guys that doesn’t really have a history of much tough stuff comes over and takes a stupid penalty.

“That’s great for us. That’s hockey. You see it happen a lot, guys trying to defend their teammates. If you’re playing hard and playing the game the right way then there’s a good chance you’ll end up on the power play and with a power play like ours, it’s even better.”

Wilson has led the Caps in penalty minutes the past two seasons (151 as a rookie and 172 last season) while averaging just 7:56 and 10:56 of ice time, respectively. This season he’s averaging 13:50 in ice time and has zero penalty minutes.

 “He has to be in control all the time and not looking to hurt anybody, but he’s a big body that has to bump into people,” Trotz said. “He’s not getting five minutes (of ice time) a night and trying to hurt someone. He’s playing 16 minutes a night and killing penalties and he’s an element that other teams can’t match sometimes. If their in his way he’s got full rein to run them over.”

MORE CAPITALS: Stephenson all smiles after being 'thrown in the fire'

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.

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Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

Niskanen takes the blame for all three Lightning goals

There was no tougher critic on Matt Niskanen’s Game 5 performance on Saturday than Niskanen himself.

Niskanen and his defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, were on the ice for all three of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s three goals in the Capitals’ 3-2 loss. That was striking given the Orlov-Niskanen duo is typically Washington’s best defensive pair.

That was not the case on Saturday and Niskanen took full responsibility afterward.

“First three goals are all my fault,” Niskanen said. “I had a tough first 20:30 so I've got to be better next game.”

Pretty much no one played the first goal right.

The goal came just 19 seconds into the game. Orlov turned the puck over in the neutral zone and Evgeny Kuznetsov looked like he could have gotten the puck, but instead played the body of Cedric Paquette. Niskanen stepped up at the blue line, but the Lightning got the puck past him creating a short rush that beat Braden Holtby who was way too far back in the crease.

Yes, Niskanen got caught a bit high, but he was just as at fault as Orlov, Kuznetsov and Holtby.

The second goal happened because Steven Stamkos tripped Orlov to create a turnover and it wasn’t called.

Niskanen got in between Ondrej Palat and the puck, but Palat beat both him and Holtby on the shot. Not sure I would put this one on Niskanen.

The third goal…well, that one was a bad play by Niskanen.

When you go one-on-one with a player, a defenseman cannot allow that player to turn the corner. That’s especially true when that player is defenseman Anton Stralman who is not exactly gifted with blazing speed. This was just a complete misplay.

Regardless of how many goals were strictly on Niskanen, that’s not the point. This was a message not so much to the media but to the team. That message was this: This one’s on me, I will be better next game.

Leaders always take responsibility. Niskanen is taking the blame here and saying he will be better in the hopes the team around him will be better as well.

They will need to be to win Game 6.

“A lot of people counted us out when we were down 0-2 in the first round,” Niskanen said. “Things got hard in the last series where we could have melted and we just kept playing. So that's what we've got to do again, bring our best effort for Game 6 at home, win a game and then we'll go from there.

“But we're focused on bringing our best game of the season for Game 6 and we'll be ready to go.”

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