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Capitals Lines Need Another Shakeup; What Will Saturday Bring?

The Washington Capitals lines need a spark as Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson work their way back; what new combinations could we see going forward and what may work best?



ARLINGTON, V.A. — The Washington Capitals are still getting used to having Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson in the lineup, which has led to some line shuffling and changes in the formation. And, after two games with a lack of consistency and chemistry on the forecheck, it's apparent that the lines need another tweak.

Following a 19-shot performance back on Sunday in a quiet win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, head coach Peter Laviolette tried to reunite some past duos while creating some new line combinations, as he reunited Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov and also put Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie back together and kept Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway on that same fourth line. Here are what the lines looked like for Wednesday's tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers:

Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Sonny Milano

Lars Eller-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie

Conor Sheary-Dylan Strome-Tom Wilson

Marcus Johansson-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway

Erik Gustafsson-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen

Alex Alexeyev-Martin Fehervary

Washington's combinations started to make a push in the final 10 minutes of regulation in Wednesday's loss, but before that, they weren't able to find much chemistry or play with too much jam. There were missed passes and bad reads, and one too many turnovers and odd-man rushes. Philly had no problem limiting the Capitals' chances and holding them to the outside. There wasn't a lot of space to make plays, and there wasn't a lot of sustained pressure, either.

So, what's the fix?

When it comes to the forward line combinations, the Johansson-Dowd-Hathaway is the only line that's really shown some grit over this last stretch. The fourth line is famous for its success across the league, and they continue to find ways to generate chances and defend well, too.

On the first line, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin have a long history, but the duo hasn't found a lot of success together at 5-on-5. Their goals-for percentage of 52.17 isn't too shabby, but both players' percentage actually goes up without each other, as Ovechkin's GF% goes up to 56.25 while Kuznetsov's elevates to 58.33, though Kuznetsov's expected goals-for goes down without his captain.

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A solid center for Ovechkin at 5-on-5 has been Dylan Strome. Their GF% together is 59.09, which is significantly higher than Kuznetsov and Ovechkin's and both also benefit more from each other than they do without each other, as their GF% and xGF% go down when they are separated. Without either of them on the ice, the GF% also goes down.

Strome has also shown that he can win draws and make a major impact down the middle, so he should stay at center.

Conor Sheary has also shown great chemistry on that top line and has proven that he's a good fit and producer there, so having him on that wing would be best based on experience.

There are 14 healthy forwards in the mix, and Anthony Mantha and Nicolas Aube-Kubel have spent the last two games sitting. It may be time to allow one of them to draw back in just to provide something of a different look and keep everyone active. However, it's difficult to choose a player to come out, as Sonny Milano has been producing, Lars Eller has been solid in a center role and plays a big role on the penalty kill while Marcus Johansson has looked good on that fourth line.

However, Laviolette pointed out, there will be changes and tough decisions and players sitting out for no particular reason except the fact that they have to keep all of their players in the mix. When it comes to the odd man out, though, Eller may have to be the one to come out after having moved to the wing. If not him, then Washington may see Milano draw out if the team chooses a winger to scratch over a center.

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With Strome and Kuznetsov as the two top-6 centers, giving Backstrom more time to get back up to speed by starting on the third line may be the right move, and he will get his ice time as he goes back into a power play role and gets more comfortable returning. He looked good alongside T.J. Oshie and assisted on Oshie's goal on Wednesday, and having him on that line may help provide an extra spark.

Tom Wilson has also started to look more comfortable, and putting him with Kuznetsov, who he spent the majority of last season with, may help get him further acclimated.

Looking at that, this could work as an interesting lineup:

Alex Ovechkin-Dylan Strome-Conor Sheary

Sonny Milano-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson

Anthony Mantha-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway

Erik Gustafsson-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Dmitry Orlov-Nick Jensen

Alex Alexeyev-Martin Fehervary

In the end, the Capitals know things have to change, but at the same time, are holding themselves accountable and say that regardless of who's back in the mix, the team should be able to acclimate with one another. Therefore, there's such a thing as putting too much blame on the line combinations.

"We've all played with each other enough at practice that we know tendencies. I wouldn't say it was sticking your toe in the water for the game to try and create connections, I think we just didn't execute and we then we didn't work hard enough to get the puck back," Hathaway said after Wednesday's defeat. "I think as the game went, we started to do that more and more. And we need to bring that momentum two nights from now when we're playing that team."

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