Things looked grim in Caps land just one week ago. Heading into the holiday, the team had one win in four games. They were stagnant during even strength and were floundering on special teams. Desperate for change, Barry Trotz made one simple adjustment: he reunited Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Since then, the Caps have won three straight, including back-to-back victories over two of the East’s most fearsome teams, Tampa and Toronto.
The process might not be perfect, but it seems the Caps have found a way to win.
In the 21 games before their reunion, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin played just 17 minutes together. In the three games and forty minutes since, they’ve outscored opponents 3 to 0 (plus an empty-netter) and held a modest advantage in shot attempts (41 to 32) and scoring chances (19 to 16).
What Backstrom gives Ovechkin is clear: he’s the team’s strongest puck-carrier, so he’s able to steward possession out of the defensive zone and through neutral, as well as winning battles while on attack. Right wing Tom Wilson has had a strong week too, pushing play even deeper into the offensive zone with his grinding style, while drawing more penalties than he’s committed (just one slash in three games, a praiseworthy feat on its own).
Then again, a good bit of the top line’s recent success has come directly from individual effort, like this solo Ovechkin drive, which looked like the Ovi of yore, who used to terrify NHL defensemen a decade ago.
I was skeptical when Trotz reunited Backstrom and Ovechkin. I worried that the team’s problems were more numerous and dire than who’s playing with whom. I still worry about that – especially defensive deployments – but there seems to have been some progress there as well.
Brooks Orpik remains overworked, but his ice time has dropped by almost three minutes since Matt Niskanen returned on November 14. That recalibration has brought maybe Orpik’s best stretch of the season, including some monster numbers when out with the Ovi-Backstrom line.
Shot attempts are 23 to 10 when Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Orpik are on the ice, which is about 35 percent of the top line’s time – a deployment identical to what Ovechkin and Kuznetsov saw but with far better results. Prior to this week, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Orpik got an abysmal 36.7 percent of shot attempts and were outscored 7 to 2. This is a massive improvement.
When out with Backstrom, Ovechkin also enjoys a lot more ice with defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who is quietly having a strong season despite a heavy workload. The Ovechkin-Backstrom line has been backed up by Orlov for 18 minutes out of 40, and they’ve been slaying it with and without him.
But that leaves Taylor Chorney and Madison Bowey, for whom the last three games have not been good at all. Despite limited minutes in cozy situations, the pairing has been atrocious. They’ve been out-attempted 36 to 20, out-chanced 20 to 9 (!), but they have not been outscored thanks to some excellent goaltending from both backstops. Regardless, Trotz knows this is trouble; he essentially benched the pair in the final six minutes of both the Tampa and Toronto games until the outcomes were certain.
Defensive depth has been the obvious problem for the Capitals all season, but maybe there is a path to resolution. Christian Djoos‘ return from injury should relegate Taylor Chorney to the press box. Bowey has proven to be a viable-yet-flawed defenseman when apart from Chorney and Orpik (though his shot-quality numbers are alarming). I could argue that the eventual pairings matter less than how their time is allotted. Trotz seems to know he has defensemen who need fewer and easier minutes, but it had been hard to make it happen with the injuries to Niskanen and Djoos. When they’re all healthy again, there may yet be a happy path.
I want to urge caution: we’re not out of the woods yet.
It’s not demonstrated that Alex Ovechkin is getting more individual offense during even strength than he was before. Tom Wilson has looked fine on the top six, but he’s never been able to make that role stick. The third line has been up-and-down depending on their match-ups and who’s on the wings. Manifestly unplayable defensemen like Taylor Chorney are still getting sweaters on a daily basis, forcing dependable players like John Carlson to get overloaded – a workload that will surely hurt his performance and/or value as we approach the trade deadline. Brooks Orpik is trending in the right direction, but these are just the early returns. And the team still plays a miserable prevent defense when holding a lead late in games that will surely cost them standings points later.
(I should note that most of those problems are in roster construction, not coaching decisions.)
But three wins in three tough games is a big deal. If nothing else, Barry Trotz has escaped the Thanksgiving holiday with his job intact, and we got to enjoy a historic and heartwarming performance from Alex Ovechkin. I’ll take it.
Headline photo: Kevin Sousa
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