In Game Four on Wednesday, the Washington Capitals lost 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now down 3-1 in the series, the Capitals are one defeat away from exiting the playoffs early, despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy with perhaps the most talented team in the history of the franchise.
A few minutes after the defeat, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz called out his star players, who struggled Wednesday in Pittsburgh, in his postgame press conference. In case they didn’t get the message, he repeated it to the media three times.
“They need to be top players and step up right now,” Trotz said.
It seems Barry is a man of his word. On Friday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the white board in the Caps locker room looked a little different. Alex Ovechkin was now the third line left wing, skating with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Ovechkin normally plays on the right side. Andre Burakovsky took over Ovechkin’s usual spot on the first line, skating alongside Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie.
“I hope it’s going to work well and we’re going to produce and we’re going to score and we’re going to win,” Ovechkin said. “We’re here to do whatever it takes to get the win and move forward.”
“It’s a just a situation where you want to switch up the lines and get better, I hope,” Ovi added “I hope it’s going work.”
According to Trotz, the moves are to spread out the scoring, saying that Ovechkin will double shift and move around.
“We’re just looking at different things,” Trotz said. “We’re trying to get more production through the length of our lineup.”
“We want our best players to be our best players,” he added.
Nevertheless, Trotz said that Ovechkin, who was nearly invisible in the Game Four, needs to help pull the team forward. On Friday, Ovechkin continued to condemn his play on Wednesday saying, “Blame on me.”
“Bottom line is we’re going to need him to be really good,” Trotz said. “He’s gotta respond this next game and be a difference maker for us.”
The rest of the lineup remained the same during the skate, save for Brett Connolly taking over the fourth line right wing spot. Trotz all but confirmed the Caps will continue to ice seven defenseman and 11 forwards, meaning that Connolly, who scored 15 goals during the regular season, with be a healthy scratch again.
For his part, Lars Eller said the new third line has “a good mix of assets” with skill and brawn that he thinks will make a very productive unit.
As for the other move, Burakovsky told reporters he’s ready to step up.
“I’m obviously going to be a shooter,” Burakovsky said. “I think I’ve been creating a lot of chances. I’ve been playing well. … The only thing that’s missing is the goals.”
“Now I’m playing with two really, really good skilled forwards that can give me the puck and create opportunities,” he added. “I just have to execute. It’s right there. It’s so close.”
Trotz is not just concerned about his changes. Ovechkin is far from the only player kicking themselves.
“We need contributions from everybody in our lineup,” Washington’s coach said.
“We need our top players to be our best players — that goes everywhere from our goaltender right through our lineup, forward and defense.”
On Saturday night, the Capitals will face the Penguins down 3-1 in the second round. With an aging core and a myriad of important free agents, the Caps will look very different next season.
A loss would be the end of an era for Washington — one that Ovechkin created.
The Great Eight almost singlehandedly made hockey popular in DC again. Along with Crosby, Ovechkin carried the NHL after a disastrous lockout. The Russian sniper, 31, is adored by Capitals fans and hated nearly everywhere else. But in one of the most important games in Capitals history, Ovechkin will start the game on the third line.
“We obviously don’t have any wiggle room,” said Trotz.
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