“They’ve just got to be better.”
Those were the first words out of the mouth of Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz during his pregame gaggle with reporters on Saturday morning. Trotz was speaking about the Washington Capitals’ current first-line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Devante Smith-Pelly.
Tonight, the Capitals play the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of their second-round playoff battle. The series is locked at two games apiece. The Caps cannot afford the performance the top trio turned in on Thursday in Pittsburgh, a 3-1 loss for Washington that evened the series. But those three skaters will remain lined up together to start Saturday’s critical game.
“We have to be better everywhere,” Kuznetsov said after the morning skate.
The line got utterly dominated during five-on-five play. When Smith-Pelly was on the ice, nearly four-fifths of the shot attempts were taken by the guys in black and gold. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov’s numbers in that area were marginally better. All it took was the good old eye test to see something was horribly wrong.
“We have to play simpler,” Ovechkin said, trying to explain the line’s miscues. “We have to play smart defensively. We can’t give them rushes in the neutral zone. They’re good, they have speed. They know how to play. We need to play our way and our system.”
Ovechkin had zero shots on goal and managed just two shot attempts playing with Smith-Pelly, who was thrown onto the first line after Tom Wilson got himself suspended again.
Perhaps Trotz was looking for some of the chaos Wilson creates on the ice from Smith-Pelly, a gritty and competent bottom-six forward. Smith-Pelly’s playing style is not his fault. Right now, he’s enduring a questionable baptism by fire in a role he’s not built for.
“We’ve just got to figure it out on the fly,” Smith-Pelly told reporters. “We have no choice.”
Trotz is giving the trio another chance together Saturday night — though it may not last for long once the puck drops in the District.
“I always have a Plan B,” Trotz said. “I also have a Plan C.”
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