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Secondary Scoring

Offensive production from all four lines has proven to be crucial for playoff success

by Ben Raby @BenRaby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

A quick glance at last year's Stanley Cup run shows the Capitals went a perfect 4-0 in potential series-clinching games. Alex Ovechkin had four goals in those four games and Braden Holtby shut the door with a 1.71 goals-against average and .942 save percentage when the opposition faced elimination.

While the Capitals stars delivered, a deeper look also finds plenty of secondary contributors and unsung heroes. Consider that in Washington's series-clinching win against Columbus in Round 1, Devante Smith-Pelly scored the eventual game-winner while Chandler Stephenson added a shorthanded insurance marker. Alex Chiasson's only goal of the playoffs game came in the Capitals' Game 6 win in Pittsburgh.

Andre Burakovsky scored twice in Game 7 of the East Final in Tampa Bay, while Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller scored the game-tying and game-winning goals as the Capitals erased a third-period deficit and won the Stanley Cup with a Game 5 triumph in Vegas.

Secondary scoring was among Washington's strengths last year and despite some inevitable player turnover, the Capitals know they'll need more of the same this spring.

"We can't expect our top guys to score every game and win every game for us," says Eller. "So, yeah, that's going to be crucial. History shows as well that it's going to be crucial to have depth [in the playoffs] and have contributions from all four lines."

Spreading the wealth was a common theme during the regular season as the Capitals had a League-high seven 20-goal scorers. While Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom are no strangers to the club, wingers Jakub Vrana (24 goals), Brett Connolly (22 goals) and Tom Wilson (22 goals) all established career-highs and hit 20+ for the first time. Lower down the depth chart, fourth-line center Nic Dowd also had career-highs across the board with 8 goals and 22 points.

"It's the difference between teams that make runs and those that go all the way," Dowd says of the secondary scorers.

"You can look at last year's team, they had contributions from the entire lineup and that makes a big difference. I think it takes a lot of pressure off the top guys. You end up winning games, 3-1, 4-1 or 5-1 instead of 1-0 or 2-1. It takes a little bit [of pressure] off your goaltender. You have to have guys contribute. The league has changed so much now and fourth-line players are different than they used to be and we're expected to contribute."

Perhaps it's fitting that Dowd was the game-winning goal scorer both on the night the Capitals officially clinched a playoff berth (3-2 win in Carolina on March 28) and on the night they secured a fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division title (2-1 win against Montreal on April 4).

"Once you get into the playoffs, there are going to be games where your top-two lines aren't going to score and someone else is going to have to step up," says Travis Boyd, Dowd's most frequent fourth-line running mate. "But there's confidence in the bottom six that we can contribute and step up in certain games."

The emphasis on contributions lower down the depth chart isn't to suggest that high-end scorers suddenly go dry springtime - let's not forget Kuznetsov's 32 points last postseason or Ovechkin's 15 goals - but their opportunities may be more limited.

Power plays are often less frequent in the playoffs and teams naturally clamp down defensively and key in on the opposition's best. According to head coach Todd Reirden, the highlight reel goals in transition you may see in January are rarer in the postseason. Instead, he says, more goals are produced through grinding, blue-collar type of shifts with sustained pressure in the offensive zone.

"Some of the rush plays dry up in the playoffs," Reirden says. "It always seems to. Teams do such a good job tracking and backchecking, it's something you preach a lot and see more of in the playoffs than you do in the regular season."

In the Capitals' division-clinching 2-1 win against Montreal late in the regular season, Eller opened the scoring from atop the crease after the recently-acquired Carl Hagelin forced a Canadiens turnover below the goal line.

 

Hagelin has proven he can move up and down the lineup as needed, but he seemed at home late in the season playing primarily with Eller and Connolly on the third line.

Connolly was among the Capitals most productive forwards during the second half of the season with a team-best 13 even-strength goals in 31 games after the All-Star break. His entire body of work produced the best season of his career with 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points - all personal bests - in 81 games.

"I think it's in this team's DNA to get production up and down the lineup," Connolly says. "We showed last year how important that can be and I think we have the guys in here, on any given night, any of us can get it done."

Connolly has proven tremendously valuable to the Capitals this season as the rare 20-goal scorer on a third line.

"I don't think a lot of wingers playing on the third line and not playing a lot of power play are getting 20 goals," notes Eller. "So, you're certainly getting a lot of value with Brett. You're getting a lot of bang for your buck, for sure. He's an underrated goal scorer who can play top-six with his abilities, so it's a luxury to have a guy like that on the third line."

Connolly and Vrana both made the most of somewhat limited minutes this past season. Among all NHL players who averaged fewer than 14 minutes of ice time per game, Connolly (13:18 per game) had the most goals and the most points.

 

Vrana (14:04 TOI) ranked first in goals and second in points among all NHL players who averaged fewer than 15 minutes of ice time per game.

Vrana grew tremendously last postseason going from a healthy scratch in the first round to a fixture in top-six by the Stanley Cup Final. This season, he's picked up where he left off last spring, playing primarily with Backstrom and Oshie on the second line and emerging as a reliable two-way player.

"We're just starting with this player, in my opinion," Reirden says of the 23-year-old Vrana. "I feel like this has been the biggest jump he's made in his overall play and we're looking forward to seeing that progress in some playoff hockey."

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