Captain Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom will start on the same line when the Capitals play the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Ovechkin and Backstrom haven't started a game on the same line since March 16 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Oates admitted he's putting them back together because the Capitals need a burst of energy from their best players against the Devils, who are five points and three teams behind in the Eastern Conference wild-card race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but could leap the Capitals with a win of any kind Friday. Washington is four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are also in action Friday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"We'll see how it goes," said Ovechkin, who for the past seven games has played with Jay Beagle as the center on his line. "It's totally [Oates'] decision. He wants to get team better so he tries to find chemistry, maybe chemistry back, and new lines."
Oates said he kept Ovechkin and Backstrom apart in recent games because he liked the look of the Capitals lineup. He split them up midway through the game against Toronto, a 4-2 Washington win. He kept them apart during the Capitals' California road trip, when they went 2-0-1 with wins against the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.
However, Washington is 0-2-2 in its previous four games, including a 5-0 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. Ovechkin hasn't scored in the past three games and he hasn't scored an even-strength goal in the past 16 games (he has seven power-play goals during that stretch). Backstrom has only one even-strength point (an assist) in the past five games.
"[Ovechkin] and [Backstrom] are always going to be the pair," Oates said, "just every once in a while you've gotta give them a little break."
Oates didn't give Ovechkin a break Wednesday, the day after Washington's dismal 5-0 loss to Dallas. Asked specifically about the Stars' fourth goal, when Ray Whitney raced past Ovechkin in the neutral zone to help create a goal for Dustin Jeffrey, Oates responded by saying Ovechkin "quit on the play coming back."
It's not often you hear a coach calling out his star player like that, but Oates did it Wednesday. On Friday, Ovechkin said he and Oates had not spoken about the coach's comments, but he didn't think he deserved all the blame because at that point the entire team was frustrated with how the game was going.
"Of course I get the blame from it, but in that moment I think everybody quit the play," Ovechkin said.
Ovechkin went on to lament the mistakes Washington has been making in recent games.
"It sucks when you didn't do the right thing when you know how to play, you know the system, and you just make easy mistakes," he said. "Again, we talked about it, we understand it and we tried to fix it. Again, 20 guys play out there. We have to be together and we can't blame it on one guy."
Down the hall in the Devils dressing room there is far less drama, but the same need for points and a lot of help. New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer said a regulation win Friday would be good not only for the points, but because it means the Devils will move past the Capitals in the standings, giving them one less team to pass in their late-season chase for a wild-card berth.
"That is a big part of it," DeBoer said. "We have a chance to put a team that is in the mix behind us. That's always important."
The Devils lineup likely won't be set until after warm-ups because defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who has missed the past five games with a groin injury, says he is ready to return. It's possible the Devils dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards to get Volchenkov in the lineup without taking out one of the remaining six defensemen. If that happens, it's also possible rookie defenseman Eric Gelinas moves up to forward.
Cory Schneider is expected to start in goal for the Devils while Washington will counter with Jaroslav Halak. Capitals defenseman Tyson Strachan, who was recalled from Hershey of the American Hockey League on Friday, will be in the lineup and paired with Dmitry Orlov.
If the Devils go with 12 forwards, here is what the lineups could look like Friday night: