WASHINGTON — The Capitals have won two games with captain Alex Ovechkin playing on the third line. That is not expected to change on Wednesday night for a decisive Game 7 against Pittsburgh.
Caps coach Barry Trotz moved Ovechkin to the third line before Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series to balance out scoring lines that had become stagnant. That’s a drastic move for a player who has scored more goals than anyone else in the NHL since he entered the league in 2005. Teammates took notice that Ovechkin didn’t complain or pout as Washington won two games with him playing alongside center Lars Eller and right wing Tom Wilson.
“I absolutely loved it. I loved that he didn’t take it personal,” defenseman Matt Niskanen told reporters after a 5-2 Game 6 win in Pittsburgh kept the season alive. “This time of year sometimes you have to just check your ego and work harder. In Game 5 he skated his butt off, ran into people, he was a bull in a china shop again and got rewarded with a goal.”
Trotz insisted the decision wasn’t a difficult one. If the Caps continued down the path they were going on, it was too easy for the Penguins to defend. The top six forwards and the power-play units were scoring. The bottom six were not providing enough offense. Ovechkin turns that third line into a bruising, physical force with enough skill to finish at 5-on-5. And Andre Burakovsky, who scored two goals in Game 6 and one in Game 5, has enough skill to keep up with center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie on the top line.
“Sometimes you just have to try because if you don’t try, you might regret it in the end,” Trotz said. “I’d rather try to do something than regret something that I should have done maybe before. The great thing about having the game, if its not working I can always flip back.”
The Caps trailed the series 3-1, but a win last Saturday in Washington and the dominant Game 6 performance has them just one win away from the organization’s first conference final since 1998. They are 4-12 all time in decisive Game 5s or Game 7s so the history hasn’t been good.
Trotz compared Ovechkin’s switch to Pittsburgh winger Phil Kessel, who played on the third line most of last season despite being the Penguins’ best pure scorer. In the postseason, Kessel played right wing with center Nick Bonino and left wing Carl Hagelin. That line was dominant in the six-game series win over Washington and Kessel had 10 goals and 12 assists in the Penguins’ run to the Stanley Cup. That group hasn’t been used as much in 2016-17, but was reunited in the Game 6 loss to Washington.
“One of the things about being a captain is that you have to worry about everybody else first, to be a good captain,” Trotz said. “And Alex is doing that. He’s worrying about everybody else first. You could use ‘check his ego’ or whatever. But he just wants to win with that group and he’ll do whatever is asked of him to win with that group. And that’s a strong message. That’s one of the strongest messages a captain can make to his teammates.”
Added Niskanen: “[Ovechkin’s] attitude hasn’t changed. He wants to win and wants to come here and make a difference. That’s not easy to do for a proud player that’s been a top, top player in this league for a long time. He checked his ego and that was that.”
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