Oshie, Ovechkin reunited as Capitals shake up lines for Game 4

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RALEIGH, N.C.—The Washington Capitals decided to shake up their lineup during Wednesday’s practice at PNC Arena in hopes of creating a spark on a team that believes it hasn’t yet played its best game this post-season.

Tinkering with all four forward lines, one of the biggest changes Capitals coach Todd Reirden made was slotting forward T.J. Oshie on to the top line to skate alongside centre Nicklas Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin. Forward Tom Wilson was moved to the second line with centre Evgeny Kuznetsov and forward Jakub Vrana. Through three games, the Capitals’ top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Wilson had combined for nine points.

Nicklas Backstrom, left, and T.J. Oshie appear to be linemates again for the Washington Capitals, who lead the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in their first-round playoff series. Carolina hosts Game 4 on Thursday.
Nicklas Backstrom, left, and T.J. Oshie appear to be linemates again for the Washington Capitals, who lead the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 in their first-round playoff series. Carolina hosts Game 4 on Thursday.  (Rob Carr / GETTY IMAGES)

Oshie has one goal and one assist but is hoping the change will further spur offensive production as the Capitals look to bounce back in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night. Washington leads the series 2-1, with the home team having won each game.

“I haven’t been up to my own personal standard and obviously playing with two world-class players like that (it) shouldn’t be too hard to find a way to have success with those guys, so I have to do my part on that line,” Oshie said.

Reirden also juggled his bottom lines, moving André Burakovsky to the third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, and putting Carl Hagelin with Nic Dowd and Travis Boyd. And defenceman Jonas Siegenthaler is expected to replace Christian Djoos. Siegenthaler was paired with veteran Brooks Orpik during practice Wednesday.

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“(He’s) a young defenceman that has got size and really good stick detail, understands the game,” Reirden said. “He has poise out there in heated situations and obviously he hasn’t played playoff hockey before, but he’s a guy that with that added size can make plays under pressure and take a hit to make a play and fend off players a little bit easier. He’s strong around the net, so now we have a little bigger guy in that spot.”

With all the lineup changes, especially to the forward lines, Reirden emphasized the importance of depth scoring and by making the adjustments, he is hoping for a better result than he’s seen through the first three games of this series. In those games the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards have a combined one goal, an empty-net goal from Eller that came 19:23 into the final period of the Capitals’ 4-2 Game 1 win. In comparison, the top-two lines have six goals through three games, with Backstrom leading the way with three. Kuznetsov has three assists.

“I think depth scoring is important in every series and it is important during the regular season and maybe it’s just making some adjustments there as well,” Reirden said. “I was happy how it looked today in practice and that was what we were looking for and maybe that gives some guys a bit of a spark.”

While the Capitals’ stars have shown up in these Stanley Cup playoffs, bottom-six goal production was a key part in the team’s ability to win the franchise’s first title last season. Last post-season, the Capitals’ bottom-six forwards accounted for 23 even-strength goals during 24 playoff games. Earlier in the year, Reirden called the bottom-six production “paramount” for the team’s Stanley Cup success.

Connolly was particularly critical of his play this post-season on Wednesday, after he led the bottom-six forwards during the regular season with 46 points (22 goals, 24 assists).

“I don’t think me and Lars have played our best these last three games and Games 1 and 2 I think were our better games, but we had our chances and didn’t convert,” Connolly said. “Last game for whatever reason (we) couldn’t get anything going and we are going to have to be better if we want to win the series and we know that.”

Last year’s playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly is now with the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, after Washington waived him before the trade deadline in late February to clear salary cap space for the acquisition of Hagelin. Smith-Pelly scored seven playoff goals last year, including the game-tying goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals against Vegas.

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Though he yet could be recalled, With Smith-Pelly still with Hershey, Washington will have to find its depth scoring elsewhere, and through three games, it’s still unclear who will provide it.

“I think it’s a seven-game series and you go a couple games without scoring, you want to, you know, stop the bleeding as much as you can, but our team is going to need some of that moving forward here if we want to win this series and then go on a deep run,” Connolly said. “We know that and we’ve proven it in the past. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”

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