Just a day before a do or die Game 5 for the Washington Capitals, Barry Trotz showcased a new set of lines during the morning drills.
Alexander Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky were switched. Burakovsky was taking shifts with the first line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, while Ovechkin skated with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson on the third line.
At face value, the move seems obvious. The Capitals are trying to shock some life into the third line to create three bonafide scoring lines. During the playoffs, Wilson has three goals, but Burakovsky, Eller, Daniel Winnik and Jay Beagle have yet to find the net.
But the shuffle has a deeper meaning. After two-straight games where the Capitals iced seven defensemen, Trotz alluded that the utilization would continue into Game 5. And with 11 forwards, some players will have to be double-shifted within the bottom six. Trotz said that Ovechkin is one of the top candidates to fill the gap left behind due to the new game plan.
“We’re just looking at different things we talked about, get a little more production through our lineup,” Trotz said. “We’ve been using 11 forwards the last couple of games. We don’t have a lot of practice days [in the playoffs]. If you use 11 forwards, sometimes you end up with other people. It was an opportunity for us to put him there and get him some reps with Lars and Tom. It’s an opportunity for us to do that, and it’s an opportunity to get production for the third group.”
Ovechkin understood the idea behind the move. He said that the lines are just getting shifted around to make everyone better. By icing Ovechkin with the third line on occasion, Eller and Wilson have a scorer to look for, and by putting Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie, Burakovsky could potentially find plentiful and strong opportunities to shoot the puck.
Both Eller and Burakovsky know that they are right on the cusp towards meaningful offensive production.
“We need more goals, but in terms of the process, we’re doing a lot of things,” Eller said. “We are creating plenty of scoring chances, so that’s the first thing you look at is scoring chances, to get goals. I think we are. Can we be better? Yes. The end result has to be more goals.”
According to Corsica, Eller has been on the ice for 80 total shot attempts at 5 on 5, while Burakovsky has been on the ice for 79 in this series. Each player has only been on the ice for 31 and 25, respectively, shot attempts against, giving them a 72.07 and a 75.96 shot attempt percentage in this series. They also have six and four on-ice scoring chances, respectively.
Eller said that, from a mental standpoint, seemingly doing everything right without scoring can be frustrating. But instead of changing up his individual game, he instead recognizes that he needs to continue to do the right thing, even if he’s facing a hot goaltender, and eventually thinks will start breaking his way.
“The trick is to not start thinking too much,” Eller said. “The trick is to not start questioning what you can do better. [Marc-Andre] Fleury has been his team’s best player so far. Last series, [Frederik] Andersen was the Leafs’ best player. Sometimes you run into a hot goalie and it is what it is, but we believe that we can still score goals. We got to keep doing the same thing, don’t overthink it, but at the same time, we have to start capitalizing on our chances.”
Burakovsky said that he and his teammates spent a lot of time scouting Fleury to try to identify weak spots in his game, but he believes that he may have been trying to pick the corners a bit too much during this series. Instead, he may just have to start letting it rip.
“I just have to execute,” Burakovsky said. “It’s right there, it’s so close. I just have to execute a little bit better. I mean, maybe instead of trying to pick the right spot, maybe I just try to go a little low.”
If Burakovsky does see some time on the Capitals’ top line, that could knock him out of his dry spell. He identified himself as the shooter of the line, and he knows that the passing abilities of both Backstrom and Oshie will give him ample opportunities to find the net.
Burakovsky is an incredibly strong possession player, and as our very own Kevin Klein pointed out, he desperately needs to start cashing in on these opportunities that he is creating for himself. There is, however, reason to believe playing with Backstrom and Oshie can jolt some life into his goal scoring production.
According to Puckalytics, Burakovsky played 86:33 5 on 5 minutes with Backstrom, and he managed to scored two goals. With Eller this season, Burakovsky scored five goals, despite playing 375 more minutes with Eller than he had with Backstrom. With Oshie, Burakovsky scored one goal in just 60:06 total minutes.
Don’t read too much into this mini line shift. This isn’t some sort of desperation move as the Capitals are on the brink of elimination. This isn’t some sort of meaningless decoy to throw off the Penguins. And this certainly isn’t some sort of signification.
“It’s the playoffs, why do you have to send a message? It’s not a good time to send a message right now,” Ovechkin said. “[We’re] here to do whatever it takes to get the win and move forward.”
This is just a tactic to try to make the team better.