After going eleven games without a goal and ten without a point in a stretch that spanned nearly all of February, Wojtek Wolski was healthy-scratched for the Capitals' first game of March, an afternoon tilt in Winnipeg. When Troy Brouwer was too sick to play against Boston three nights later, Wolski drew back into the lineup and, as fate would have it, scored the game-tying goal late in the third period. Said Adam Oates post-game, "I'm obviously happy for him, but I thought he played a better hockey game. He did the things that we ask. The goal - that's obviously big for us and big for him. But we don't talk production. We talk play."
And so Wolski was back in the lineup again two nights later and notched a goal and a pair of assists in the Caps' romp over the Panthers, and his season seemed back on track... if it had ever really been off-track. As we noted between the Winnipeg scratch and the Boston game, "Wolski has had unfavorable zone starts, a solidly positive Corsi, the highest SFON/60 of any Caps forward... and unsustainably lousy puck luck. Keep playing this guy - the points will come." Sure enough, they did.
Then a funny thing happened after the team laid a collective egg on Long Island last Saturday - Wolski found himself back in the press box on Sunday, and he found another perhaps unlikely teammate up there alongside him in Mathieu Perreault. Oates was asked about these lineup decisions after that afternoon's loss to the Rangers, and the head coach responded, "Play. Play and the team we're playing. A lot of factors are involved."
Oates owes the questioner and the public no more than that, but one wonders what he saw in the play of the two that earned them the afternoon off. After all, the two forwards are among the team's top three in Corsi (a proxy for puck possession); Perreault leads all Caps forwards in assists- and points-per-sixty-minutes at five-on-five; Wolski leads the team in shots-for-per-sixty at fives (and is tops in shots-against among guys who have been here all year). And while Perreault has had great puck luck and Wolski hasn't, one-game-focused arguments based on either regression would seem rather silly. Perreault has taken too many penalties lately... but also has drawn a bunch. Heck, Perreault has even turned himself into a 54%-effective face-off man so far this season, 60% in the offensive zone. So if the scratches were about "play," it's hard to see how, unless there were specifics in that Islanders debacle that stood out to the coaching staff.
How about "the team we're playing"? The last time the Caps faced the Rangers, Perreault had the Caps' second-worst Corsi among forwards, and Wolski was almost as bad. Then again, the team was outshot 29-19 at even-strength. Perhaps something about the specific individual match-ups made Oates wary of throwing the two to the New York wolves again, but nine times out of ten a 17-plus-game sample is going to tell you more than one game can (and you'd certainly hope that Perreault's one point in seven career games against New York was treated as largely irrelevant).
In short, these are two guys who have helped the offense all year - with their play, if not always their production - watching in street clothes while Joey Crabb and Aaron Volpatti dressed, Matt Hendricks skated on the top line... and the Caps dropped a somewhat uninspired 4-1 decision. Whatever it is that Crabb and Volpatti bring to the lineup that Perreault and Wolski don't - some form of physicality that may or may not actually help a team win - it didn't seem to impact the final result (though, to be sure, the Caps had bigger problems on this day).
It's easy to second-guess a coach's decision in a loss. And, truth be told, decisions like the ones we're discussing here may seem a bit like picking out pillows for the deck chairs on the Titanic. But benching guys who are seeing 53% or so of all shots when they're on the ice heading towards the opposing net in favor of guys who are around 44% seems an odd play from afar. Adam Oates talks "play, not production" and takes into account "a lot of factors" when deciding upon his lineup; it'd be nice to know more about those factors, because puck possession, as commonly understood by statistically-inclined onlookers, doesn't appear to weigh too heavily among them.