PITTSBURGH — Two games ago, with the Washington Capitals down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Barry Trotz sent star left wing Alex Ovechkin down to the third line. Facing elimination, it was a fair moment to try something new but whether you thought it was desperate or savvy, it was surprising.
Among the Capitals themselves, more attention was paid to how Ovechkin reacted to the lineup change than the fact that it happened in the first place. The face of the franchise, who commands a salary of $10 million, moved down and gave up his starting spot without so much as a peep. While switching lines is no huge sacrifice, players have their pride, so Ovechkin’s teammates noticed when he put his aside.
“I absolutely loved it,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I love that he didn’t take it personal. This time of year, sometimes you have to just check your ego and work harder.”
“He skated his butt off,” Niskanen said.
Particularly after Ovechkin had been critical of his own performance in Game 4 and promised to do better, the impression he made became that much stronger.
“He just wants to win and wants to come here and make a difference and that’s not easy to do for a proud player that’s been a top, top player in this league for a long time,” Niskanen said. “So, he checked his ego and that was that.”
Niskanen saw selflessness in Ovechkin because moving from the top line to the third could be perceived as a demotion, even though that was far from the point. Trotz wanted to even out scoring because he wasn’t getting production outside of his top two lines. Ovechkin could bring offense to the third line and, with Tom Wilson on the other wing, Trotz had a unit that could dole out big hits.
Andre Burakovsky, who moved up to the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, also needed to get out of a rut. Burakovsky had two assists in the Toronto series but hadn’t scored in the playoffs until Game 5 against Pittsburgh. He added two more Monday night.
“Well since we made the move I think the lines have been pretty effective for us. We spread it out a little bit but also get some guys going, obviously Andre had I thought had a real strong game,” Trotz said Monday night.
Niskanen mentioned that he’s noticed Burakovsky getting his shots off faster recently. Burakovsky said that film study helped him start finishing his scoring chances. Puck possession and skating hadn’t been the issues, and once he got the first playoff goal Saturday, the others came more easily.
“I think everything is coming with confidence,” Burakovsky said. “I mean, during this whole playoff, I think I’ve been creating so many chances, and the only thing I’ve been missing is to maybe hit the net.”
The lineup change has had a two-fold impact on the Capitals. Yes, it seems to have helped Burakovsky’s offensive game and, with Ovechkin, made the third line plenty menacing. In addition, simply watching Ovechkin accept the change without fuss sent a message that the series wasn’t over, and that it was still worth sacrificing for.
“Our leadership has sort of grabbed hold of it the last few games,” Trotz said. “And I think it starts there.”
It could end as soon as Wednesday but, if the Capitals win a third-straight game and advance, the coach’s tinkering will appear rather savvy.
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