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The Narrative: Draw This, Top ‘Er Off and The Center Sitch

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Three things we’re talking about today when we’re talking about the Caps

NHL: Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Draw This

Much has been made of the Bruins’ dominance in the faceoff circle through two games, and with good reason: they’ve won 80 of the 130 draws (61.5%), including 25 of 35 (71.4%) in the defensive zone and 29 of 52 (55.8%) in the offensive end of the rink. That can be particularly dangerous, as we’d noted previously, against a team like Boston that generates so much offense off of faceoffs.

Funny thing is, there have been four goals scored in this series following an in-zone faceoff without an intervening clear, and the Caps have scored the last three of them:

Funnier still, the Bruins were credited with the having won the draw on the Brenden Dillon and T.J. Oshie goals above.

Remembers: faceoffs, in aggregate, don’t matter much, even when individual faceoffs do. And what often matters more is puck retrieval (as those two goals demonstrate). That’s not to say that a bad icing followed by a clean loss on a faceoff won’t ultimately doom the Caps, but rather that there are more important things than faceoff win percentage.

2. Top ‘Er Off

After Game 1, Bruce Cassidy subtly (but publicly) asked for more production from his top-six forwards after getting all his offense via two goals from bottom-sixers. Message sent, message received, as his top line scored twice in Game 2, and his second-line chipped in a third goal.

Peter Laviolette seems unlikely to call out his big guns, but the Caps’ need for more from Alex Ovechkin (no goals, two assists), Nicklas Backstrom (no points) and Anthony Mantha (no goals, one assist) is every bit as pressing. While the Caps have already gotten tremendous contributions from their fourth line (a goal from Nic Dowd and a pair from Garnet Hathaway), and one from second-liner (?) Tom Wilson, Brenden Dillon’s Game 1 marker is the only one for which the top line has been on the ice.

But whereas the Bruins’ top line was due for a goal after Game 1 (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak combined for 0.95 expected goals at five-on-five in Game 1 and are at 1.40 through two games), the Caps’ top trio posted just 0.23 xGF in Game 1 and 0.47 in Game 2, for a not-so-nice total of 0.69, or half of the Bergeron line’s xGF... and have been on for one goal. So they’ve actually exceeded expectations so far. (Sure doesn’t feel like it, does it?)

Granted, the Caps routinely outperform their expected goal rates (as they have through two games). But both Ovechkin and Backstrom are down more than 10 percent from their regular-season expected goals rates (Mantha is actually up nearly 15 percent from his rate with the Caps). Those may seem like trivial differences over a small sample (because they are), but when Alex Ovechkin goes six games without a goal and Nick Backstrom goes four without a point, nothing seems trivial.

The Caps’ top line isn’t hurting them (their expected goals-for percentage is just a hair under 50), but it’s not helping them as much as they need it to. That’s gotta change, and fast.

3. The Center Sitch

Okay, so Lars Eller may or may not be available tonight, which is horrible news...

...but Evgeny Kuznetsov practiced again and shipped up to Boston with the team and could be available tonight, which is great news.

BREAKING NEWS: We interrupt this post to note that both Eller and Kuznetsov skated this morning, which is potentially tremendous news.

When healthy, the Caps’ depth down the middle - Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Eller and Nic Dowd - is among the League’s most formidable. But take out those middle two and replace them with non-centers like T.J. Oshie (2-for-19 on faceoffs in the series) and maybe Michael Raffl and that strength becomes a weakness real fast (despite yeoman’s efforts from the subs). As Laviolette noted regarding Eller’s early departure from Game 2, “Especially with Osh, who’s a winger playing the middle, (now) you are looking at making sure you are protecting D-zone starts and trying to get matchups.”

If Eller and Kuznetsov can’t go, do the Caps dress 11 forwards - only two natural centers - and seven defensemen, or do they give a sweater to Connor McMichael, Philippe Maillet or Garrett Pilon? That’s a hell of a decision in a pivotal playoff road game. Somewhat ironically, if Eller is unavailable, it will be up to someone (or someones) to do exactly what Lars Eller has always done so incredibly well - step up and fill in when called upon.