The biggest lineup news in Pittsburgh is the impending return of Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby, following a concussion suffered on a controversial hit by ex-teammate Matt Niskanen. But over the past few days, we’ve seen a potential change in how the Washington Capitals will deploy their forward group and part of that adjustment — as shocking as it sounds — is Alexander Ovechkin falling to the bottom-six.
Should we consider this a demotion for the ‘Great 8’?
So, to recap: Ovechkin is skating with third-line center Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Burakovsky with Backstrom and Oshie. Carlson w/ Orpik.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 5, 2017
Ovechkin’s move to the third line for practice on Friday morning could mean nothing. After his lackluster performance in a pivotal Game 4, though, the masses are wondering if head coach Barry Trotz will indeed move him down the lineup. Ovie hasn’t been the overwhelming, abrasive force we’ve come to expect so far in this series and it’s evident in his lack of shots, scoring chances and his inability to attack Pittsburgh’s defensemen on the rush. Normally, he looks for opportunities to lug the puck into the offensive zone and challenge opposing defensemen one-on-one but recently — against a Pittsburgh team missing their top blueliner — it hasn’t happened. How does a demotion to the bottom of Washington’s lineup help that?
That’s where things get interesting.
Finding Favorable Matchups
Penguins’ head coach Mike Sullivan has force fed Ovechkin a large dose of Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin, with that pairing facing Ovie for north of 36-minutes at even-strength. The Capitals are winning the possession battle during that span with the Capitals owning approximately 63-percent of shot attempts but they’re taking away Ovechkin’s office in the slot, as well as quality scoring chances. It’s forcing Ovie to look for outlets and distribute the puck far more than the Capitals would like him to and ultimately, it’s neutralizing the potent trio of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie.
Ovechkin was credited with a measly two shots on goal in Game 4.
That can’t continue if the Capitals are going to claw their way back into this series. Ovechkin practicing with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson — combined with the fact Washington is likely dressing seven defensemen and 11 forwards again — indicates they’ll double shift him. That changes things for Sullivan and how he deploys his blueliners, and since the Capitals will have the last change at home, it gives Trotz an opportunity to create more favorable matchups.
It also means that despite Crosby’s potential return for Game 5, the penguins won’t be able to rely so heavily on his line hemming Washington’s top trio in their own end zone for extended periods of time. They’ve been the only line for Pittsburgh that has shown glimpses of doing so.
In other words, look for an uptick in Ovechkin’s ice time, not a decrease. This isn’t a punishment, though it may look like it on the surface. Would Trotz really risk sending a message to his captain in quite literally the most important game of their season?
Penguins Have the Blueprint for Success
Games 1 and 2 are reflective of how Pittsburgh needs to approach the Capitals’ attempt to spread out Ovechkin’s offense. Jacques Martin wasn’t necessarily concerned with specific matchups when the Penguins visited the Verizon Center to start this series but instead, he spread out everyone’s minutes like they did against the Columbus Blue Jackets in round one.
Game 5 should be more of the same.
The Penguins are defying analytics by playing a counter game, allowing the Capitals to throw their punches but when an opportunity presents itself to strike, they do so with force. The numbers reflect a fairly dominant series by the Capitals and for the most part, the eye test does as well. The Penguins are satisfied with Washington shooting from the perimeter and leaning on Marc-Andre Fleury to shut the door. A double shifting Ovechkin doesn’t change that.
This reeks of desperation. A last-ditch effort to get Ovechkin going offensively and spark what seems like the impossible; A comeback series victory after trailing the Penguins 3-1. Trotz isn’t punishing Ovechkin, he’s challenging him. Whether or not he responds, Pittsburgh needs to stick to their game and things will fall into place as they have throughout the entire postseason so far.