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Third Things First

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A look at the Caps’... best line?

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

To win in the NHL these days, a team needs more than just a “top six” who contribute, they need at least a “top nine” - three lines that can carry the bulk of the scoring burden. (Just imagine where the Caps’ 2018 Cup run would’ve ended without getting offense from Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly. Or, better yet, don’t imagine that - it’s not fun.)

And while it may be too early to say that the 2021 Caps have found a contender-worthy third line (the adequacy of the top-six is another topic), Tuesday night’s win in Pittsburgh sure was encouraging on that front, as Conor Sheary and Eller scored two of the Caps’ three goals, with Richard Panik getting the primary assist on both.

Two goals from a total distance of 45 feet from the cage. Beauties.

But more than just scoring, the third line dominated possession throughout the game:

Oh, and that was in Pittsburgh in a game where Eller’s most frequent opposing forward by five-on-five time on ice was Sidney Crosby (a match-up in which the Caps outshot the Pens 7-0 over the course of the evening).

Of course, we shouldn’t make too much out of one game.

...but how about eight?

The trio of Sheary, Eller and Panik (I’m fine with the “SHEP” line) has skated together for 44:31 at five-on-five over the course of eight games so far this season and the results are, well, encouraging: 64.8 Corsi-For percentage; 69.2 Shots-For percentage; 78.5 Expected Goals-For percentage; 81.8 High-Danger Corsi-For percentage; and the all-important 100.0 Goals-For percentage (last night’s were the first two tallies for the trio).

Put another way, via MoneyPuck:

Now, is the SHEP line the best line in hockey, better than Crosby’s or Jack Eichel’s or Connor McDavid’s? Who’s to say, really?

The bottom line here is that if the Caps are going to make any noise this year (or any year), they need contributions up and down the lineup, especially as the broad shoulders that have carried the club for a decade and a half start showing some signs of slowing down. If the third line can contribute - offensively and/or defensively - they’ll give the team a real chance to win a bunch of games.