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Mixing and Matching: Getting the Most Out of the Capitals’ Playoff Lineup

How strong or weak are the Capitals playoff lines and pairings?

NHL: New York Islanders at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Capitals will kick off their first-round series against the offensive juggernaut that is the Florida Panthers tonight - and to have any sort of edge the Caps will need to find line combinations and defensive pairs that will give them the best output.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the team has been lining up at the most recent practices:

Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Sheary

For how extremely offensively gifted Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov are, they are also pretty tough to play with. Whoever slots into that right-wing role will have to do a lot of defensive lifting and battling in the corners.

Conor Sheary actually fits that description pretty well on paper, but for whatever reason the chemistry just doesn’t seem to to fit well. In 167 minutes together this season that line has a less-than-stellar 47.8 CF%, 46.8 xGF%, 46.1 SCF%, and 42.83 HDCF% - and while they’re generating some decent offense, as shown in the charts below, the defensive side is extremely rough:

Against a team with as potent an attack as Florida, and a coach who values defensive responsibility, it’s a pretty good guess they won’t stay together long... but unfortunately there aren’t really a lot of options outside of Sheary for that top-line assignment. Marcus Johansson and T.J. Oshie have had decent results there but the sample size is small.

Tom Wilson seems to be the only that can keep them somewhat respectable, but it still doesn’t look good. In 476 minute this season: 49.33CF%, 47.51xGF%, 48.44SCF%, 45.89HDCF%. Again, it also isn’t great, but it’s best to spread Sheary, Johansson and Oshie out, which you’ll see later. With Wilson, the offensive impact is negative but so is the defensive impact, which is probably more important for that line. They can score without many chances so it’s better to focus on the defense.

Best bet is to roll with Wilson on that top line, give them all the offensive zone starts, and hope they get that same magic they did in 2018.

Johansson-Backstrom-Wilson

This line hasn’t really played together much this season - just under 11 minutes total - so the stats won’t really tell us that much. Still, from that small sample size the numbers are pretty strong, with 50.8 CF%, 52.8 xGF%, 51.2 SCF% and 70.0 HDCF%.

But while the data as a trio doesn’t help us much, we can break it down into pairs. So for example, Johansson and Backstrom have 100 minutes together - still not huge, but a better sample to work with, and the results have also been good: 51 CF%, 51.9 xGF%, 50.6 SC%, and 55.3 HDCF%.

On the flip side, we have Wilson and Backstrom, who have spent almost twice as much time together (197 minutes) with not nearly as strong results: 48.1 CF%, 44.9 xGF%, 46.8 SCF%, and 45.4 HDCF%.

The problem, unfortunately, lies with the common denominator here, and that’s Backstrom, who has simply not been great this season since returning mid-campaign from hip surgery (as is to be expected, perhaps, but still not ideal).

The Caps are really going to have to surround him with the best players possible. That’s why it’s a head scratcher that Laviolette didn’t roll with the best line Backstrom has been a part of all season, which matches him with Johansson and Sheary. That trio has been dynamite in their 52 minutes together: 57.6 CF%, 56.2 xGF%, 56.5 SCF%, and 55.2 HDCF%.

Still not a lot of minutes but Backstrom has been dragging down most his teammates all season since his return from injury, so if a line is showing that much potential, Laviolette should really go right to it.

Mantha-Eller-Oshie

Many thought Eller was officially cooked earlier this season as he struggled after not just one but two bouts with COVID this season. Over the last month, however, Eller has come back with a vengeance. Laviolette made a strong third line with Anthony Mantha, Eller, and Oshie. They only have 57 minutes together but they put up 61.8 CF%, 57.0 xGF%, 61.6 SCF%, and 59.0 HDCF% - that’s a great recipe for some depth scoring, which you need to make any sort of run (especially against a powerful offense like Florida’s). This line is made to get you those depth points.

Larsson-Dowd-Hathaway

The fourth line has been strong all season, whether it was the original version with Carl Hagelin or the new-look line featuring deadline acquisition Johan Larsson on the left wing. The addition of Larsson has been a great one. The fourth line in 94 minutes together have been stellar: 57 CF%, 66.5 xGF%, 60.3 SCF%, and 78.7 HDCF%. Outside of injury that line will never be broken apart. Wouldn’t be surprised if they end up getting top-six minutes in order to try to slow Florida down.

Fehervary-Carlson

Before Fehervary got COVID, this pair was strong together. In almost 441 minutes they had 53.8 CF%, 56.2 xGF%, 53.7 SCF%, and 56.1 HDCF%. In recent months, though, they have struggled, and in 608 minutes together they’ve dropped to 47 CF%, 43.1 xGF%, 46 SCF%, and 46.2 HDCF%. Woof.

The good news is the last 10 games they seemed to have picked it up, with three of those metrics creeping slightly above 50%... not amazing, but this pair doesn’t need to be dominant. If they can hover around 50% in their possession metrics then that’s a win because their offensive impact is good.

The other option is to put the Caps best all around defensemen, Dmitry Orlov, up with Carlson. In 146 minutes together this season they have 58.63CF%, 54.65xGF%, 53.85SCF%, 54.95HDCF%. That’s very good, but breaking up Orlov-Jensen might not be worth the movement, as you’ll see. Either way, Fehervary-Carlson have been on a good trend lately, hopefully that continues into the playoffs.

Orlov-Jensen

This pairing has been a steady rock for the Capitals all season. In 913 minutes together this pair has a 52 CF%, 53.8 xGF%, 51.5 SCF%, and 51.5 HDCF%. Those certainly aren’t crazy off-the-charts numbers, but it’s important to remember they are sent out against the others team’s best lines. There’s no reason to break them up (except maybe for the reason above), but they will certainly have their work cut out for them against the Panthers.

van Riemsdyk-Schultz

Quietly, this pairing has been very good for the Caps, and have put up numbers that are strong for a third pairing. In 572 minutes together they have a 50.6 CF%, 52 xGF%, 53.4 SCF%, and 50.9 HDCF%. Again, not crazy numbers, but solid given their role. TvR is always reliable and Schultz has some offensive pop to his game that can help get those depth points that are so needed in a playoff series.

BOTTOM LINE: These lines are close to getting to the best to what the Caps can put together. Making a simple swap of Sheary and Wilson could do wonders, and maybe looking to switching Orlov and Fehervary if the youngster seems to be struggling.

Even if the Caps get everything firing on all cylinders, of course, it may not be enough to stop the Panthers... but starting with a lineup that maximizes what they have on forward and at the blueline should at least give them a chance to take the fight to Florida and make it a series.