It’s not a demotion.
That’s the word from Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who demo…, uh, reassigned franchise superstar Alex Ovechkin to the team’s third line at practice on Friday morning.
While some assumed it was a ruse – Ovechkin wearing a white jersey at the skate instead of red, the mark of a bottom-six forward, that’ll throw them off! – it appears that this is how the deck chairs will be rearranged on Saturday night for Game 5, with the Capitals facing both elimination to the Pittsburgh Penguins and probably the return of their captain Sidney Crosby after a one-game absence.
Ovechkin skated with center Lars Eller and winger Tom Wilson. His linemates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie skated with Andre Burakovsky, who’s been the Capitals’ most productive forward from a possession standpoint in the Penguins’ series.
“I hope it’s gonna work,” said Ovechkin. “We didn’t have success as a [trio] last game. I didn’t control the puck at all. Again, the blame’s on me. I have to be better.”
Let’s get through the surface criticisms first.
Yes, this is unmitigated panic from Trotz and the Capitals after that disastrous Game 4 loss, in which Washington couldn’t take advantage of Crosby’s absence. Moving the greatest goal-scorer of his generation off the top line and onto a line with two checkers is every bit the unnerving playoff flinch that Bruce Boudreau’s goalie shuffling was before his demise.
The Capitals won a President’s Trophy with Alex Ovechkin as their top left wing; their season might end with him anchoring their third line. And if the Capitals lose Game 5 with nary a whimper from Ovechkin or the top line, then Trotz moves ahead in the firing squad line in front of Braden Holtby, the Capitals’ blue line and Ovechkin to take the most heat for them blowing this series, even if essentially it’s a Hail Mary with the clock near triple-zeroes and the game pretty much lost.
OK, all of that said … here’s why Alex Ovechkin on the third line might work:
1 – He’s Not Been Good.
We’re card-carrying members of the “Alex Ovechkin Isn’t The Problem In The Playoffs Club,” but he’s done some significant digging in creating the hole they’re in this postseason.
“Me, personally, I have to play much better,” he said after a Game 4 performance that saw him fail to score a point and muster four shot attempts, just two of them on goal. That’s with over five minutes of power-play time!
Overall in the series, Ovechkin is a plus-30 in Corsi at even strength. But as JP from Japers’ Rink notes, one half of those have been blocked and two thirds of those haven’t actually reached Marc-Andre Fleury and only one of those shots was a scoring chance. (Via Corsica)
Who has been good? Burkovsky, leading the Capitals with a plus-54 Corsi. He’s been playing like a top liner. And now he is one.
2 – This Might Be What Ovechkin Needs.
“I didn’t control the puck well. I make stupid decisions,” he said after Game 4.
Well, sure. He’s pressing. He’s attempting to score five goals every time he touches the puck, because he’s absolutely done with this playoff futility and done with losing to the Penguins and done with being the greatest player of his generation never to even play for a championship. So he tries to do too much, and his line tries to do too much, and they end up with nothing but an Oshie assist.
You hear it all the time from coaches and players: Getting back to basics. Trying to lessen the offensive flourish and increase the blue-collar aesthetic.
Well, here we are for Ovechkin: He’s now with two lesser skilled players that are among the top three in Corsi plus/minus in this series. He’s with two guys that will forecheck hard and potentially generate a different kind of chance for Ovechkin than Backstrom and Oshie could. Maybe getting back to basics will help.
I’ve always liked lines with two checkers and a highly skilled winger. Growing up, that was Bobby Carpenter playing with Stephane Richer with the Devils. No disrespect to Carl Hagelin, but the HBK Line was a little like that, too, with Phil Kessel on wing last season.
So maybe Trotz is on to something here. If nothing else, moving Ovechkin down the lineup in a game in which he has the last change really causes some headaches for the Penguins if they want to match him.
3 – But Line Combinations Aren’t Made Of Concrete.
From the sound of things, Trotz is looking to play Ovechkin on the third line but potentially double-shift him with 11 forwards and seven defensemen dressed. He is a Russian Machine, as you know.
4 – The Rest Of The Team’s Moves Aren’t Too Shabby.
Not exactly Ovechkin-related, but why did this take so long?
On D: Orpik with Carlson. Schmidt with Shattenkirk. Orlov with Niskanen.
— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) May 5, 2017
5 – Finally, Something Had To Be Done.
The Penguins have every edge imaginable right now. The series lead. The mental advantage. Crosby and Conor Sheary likely back for Game 5. A goalie playing as well as Holtby was supposed to play. A coach who seemingly mashes every button right as his lineup fluctuates.
Trotz had to change the mix, change the conversation, get his guys out of the malaise of the status quo and recommitted to the mission. It’s no different than what Joel Quenneville had done with the Chicago Blackhawks in the past when they’ve hit postseason skids.
OK, granted, he never dropped Patrick Kane down to skate with Marcus Kruger in an elimination game…
But desperate times call for desperate measures. And it doesn’t get more desperate then moving Alex Ovechkin to the third line.
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