There's a somewhat sensational angle to tonight's game between the Caps and Bolts, but we'll let others cover that and discuss something only slightly more important - the line combinations from Thursday's practice.
We touched on the shake-up briefly, and here's a quick refresher on how the forwards lined up at practice yesterday:
Ovechkin - Fedorov - Fehr
Laich - Backstrom - Semin
Fleischmann - Nylander - Kozlov
Erskine - Steckel - Bradley
Note that Alex Semin didn't actually practice on Thursday, and is questionable for tonight's game, and let's take a look at each line in turn, starting with the first, where Alex Ovechkin gets two new linemates, the most productive two-thirds of the now-defunct "F Street" line. It's an exciting combination because it puts the Caps' best five-on-five penalty-drawing forward - Eric Fehr - out there with the League's leading goal-scorer and a crafty veteran pivot who wins faceoffs like it's his job (because it is, in fact, his job). Ovechkin has had only three even strength goals this month (and Fehr has just one goal of any sort in March), so perhaps this move will get both back on track. When the Caps drafted Ovechkin back in 2004, they no doubt envisioned a future top line that had he and Fehr on the wings. Perhaps that future has arrived.
Moving down a line, you might remember the trio of Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom and Semin from such classics as "Gettin' it Done in Round One" and "Age Ain't Nothin' But a Number." The Caps' most productive line in last year's playoff series against the Flyers (their six points were two more than Ovechkin, Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov racked up together) features three players who are 25-years-old or younger and have shown great chemistry, and not only last April - so far in 2008-09, Backstrom has been more productive when paired with Semin and Laich individually at even strength than when he skates with Ovechkin. Interestingly, though, Bruce Boudreau hasn't gone to this combination much at all this season - Alexandre Giroux, Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov have skated together more frequently. With no even strength tallies in his last eight games (and just one overall in that span), Semin should benefit from sharing the sheet with the Caps' best passer, and throwing another net-crashin', penalty-drawin' winger on the other side should work. It has in the past.
Then there's the third line (which reminds me a lot of this place). Tomas Fleischmann has one even strength goal (and two overall) since January 14. Michael Nylander has one even strength goal (and three overall) since January 27. Viktor Kozlov one even strength goal (total) since January 31. Will anyone on this line of leftover skill forwards skate below and between the faceoff dots? Stay tuned. (Watch - this will be the best line of the night.)
Finally we get to the fourth line, which may feature blueliner-by-trade John Erskine on the wing for the second time since he was a wee lad. Some theorize that his presence here is in anticipation of some retaliatory fisticuffs headed the Caps' way, and by skating Big John as a forward, if and when he handles the pugilistic duties, his subsequent time in the sin bin won't impact the rotation of D-pairings. Makes sense (though I'd wager there'll be more lip-flappin' than knuckle-chuckin' tonight). But whether or not we're treated to the vision of Erskine blazing down the wing and no doubt forechecking with gusto, the fourth line will feature David Steckel, who would have 31 goals and 31 assists on the season if he scored against everyone at the pace with which he has done in the Bolts over his career. It will also have Matt Bradley, who has 15 of his 105 career points against Tampa, including two goals and a helper in four games this season. So expect big things from these three. Or not.
Having scored just five even strength goals in their last seven games (not including Laich's goal with the goalie pulled), the Caps' forwards clearly need some sort of spark, and these new lines may provide just that. If not, they could do worse than the lines that have done pretty darn well five-on-five for the first 75 games of the season. They've got seven games to figure it out.