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When Scoring Lines Don't Score

A look at the alterations Adam Oates made to his team's top (supposedly) two scoring lines, and how they've manifested in the five games since.

Rob Carr

These past few years it seems like the Capitals' second line is always the story. Where the first line has found something like consistency in mainstays (for the most part) Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, its counterpart on the floor below is in a constant state of flux.

If you exercised the seemingly conventional wisdom that the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski would steady this ever-changing triumvirate (like we were), alas, you remain sailing the tumultuous waters of permutation and uncertainty.

The most recent such change came five games ago, when Adam Oates knocked Grabovski down to the third line with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera, bringing Martin Erat to skate alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line, and slotting Marcus Johansson at pivot between Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on scoring line numero dos.

Marcus Johansson was drafted as a center, and we've seen plenty of his playmaking ability up top, and while Laich and Brouwer don't have near the firepower as 8 and 19, with over 200 career goals between them, they're not exactly slouches either. So let's take a peek at how this latest second line incarnation has fared through five games.

vs NYI

vs MIN

vs PHX

vs COL

vs CBJ

Brooks Laich

68.4% CF


57.7% CF


18.2% CF


32.0% CF


33.3% CF


Marcus Johansson

68.8% CF


72.7% CF


27.3% CF


30.0% CF


37.0% CF


Troy Brouwer

76.5% CF




18.2% CF


29.2% CF


32.1% CF


The numbers here are very straight forward: they tell us that the second line played two very good games against the Islanders and the Wild, before plummeting to the valley of suckitude in the next three.

But possession doesn't measure production, it only predicts it. So how'd this trio fare when it came to putting the puck in the net? Well, pretty poorly. They didn't score. Not once. At least not when all three of 'em were out on the ice together. There were a few instances— Johansson's goal against Minnesota, for instance— where a goal was scored when only a portion of line was deployed.

So what about the first line? How have they fared with Martin Erat opposite Ovechkin? Let's take a look.

vs NYI

vs MIN

vs PHX

vs COL

vs CBJ

Martin Erat

51.5% CF


42.9% CF


52.4% CF


60.0% CF


58.3% CF


Nicklas Backstrom

57.6% CF


40.9% CF


54.2% CF


52.8% CF


54.2% CF


Alex Ovechkin

52.9% CF


38.5% CF


53.8% CF


51.4% CF


50.0% CF


Not too shabby at a glance, huh? Positive possession in four games out of five. And the only game they were not a positive possession line was when they squared off against Ryan Suter, who's, well, really good. Not bad for a line that's struggled in the possession game for the better part of a year. But then again, even when they were struggling in possession they were producing on some level. It's been a bit of a role reversal for these past five games, as the top line has possessed well, but hasn't produced a lick.

Same as the second line: when Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Erat have all been on the ice together at even-strength, they haven't scored a single goal. They haven't even been on for one from the D. And again, Backstrom and Erat have both been on the ice for even-strength goals, but never with Ovechkin or each other. Erat's beautiful feed last night to John Carlson is a perfect example, as he was deployed with Mikhail Grabovski and Tom Wilson while the big guns rested after a power play.

Is it a small sample? Yes. Is it also telling that seemingly the moment these lines are broken up— whether by virtue of an incomplete line change or a temporary shuffling due to in-game intangibles— they begin to score? Probably.

Here's the thing. The third line is on fire. So long as they continue to tear up the secondary scoring train tracks, you can't break them up, which means Grabovski isn't going anywhere, which means the options are limited.

So what have we learned from these five games? Well up top, there's plenty of reason to think that if 8/19/10 stayed together they'd begin to produce. But as Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin demonstrated last night in overtime, they know how to put points on the board, regardless of what the underlying numbers show. And if the years have taught us anything, it's that this team goes as the top line goes.

So does it make sense to keep the guy who's recorded the primary assist on six of the most prolific goal scorer of the post lockout-era's seven even-strength tallies on a line away from that very most prolific goal scorer of the post lockout era? I don't know, you tell me.

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