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Boudreau line-juggling pays dividends for Caps

by Dan Rosen /
WASHINGTON -- As much as Washington coach Bruce Boudreau loves to watch his elite Europeans razzle and dazzle like the Harlem Globetrotters, he might enjoy breaking up the troika of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin even more.

Boudreau, a meat-and-potatoes player throughout his mostly minor-league playing career, wants his best players to play with at least some of that straight-line mentality for the entire game.

So after witnessing Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin create chances that should have been accompanied by "Sweet Georgia Brown," in Wednesday's game against Buffalo, he tore them apart because they were getting, as he said, "too cute" in what was a tight game.

With the Capitals leading 3-2 in the third period, Ovechkin and Backstrom stayed together, but Semin was replaced by Mike Knuble -- one of those Boudreau-type wingers.

"Their first period, every time they touched the puck they were a threat to score, and then they get into those habits where they want to be so unselfish and make everybody touch the puck," Boudreau said. "I thought when it was 3-2 that we should make a change so that they could be more meat and potatoes."

Washington quickly went on a 5-on-3 and Backstrom and Ovechkin wound up scoring goals to seal a 5-2 win, but Boudreau wasn't deterred. He played perhaps the only card he can play with this talented trio that loves playing together.

His juggling of the top-line players, be it at the start of games or in the middle of them, should not be overlooked or considered minor. It's an essential coaching tool Boudreau can use any time he wants -- and, believe it or not, it probably makes the Capitals an even better squad.

Whether it's Knuble, Brooks Laich, Chris Clark or Eric Fehr, when Boudreau wants to go away from the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin line, he can do so knowing the winger going in can be a productive offensive player -- and likely more reliable on the defensive end, too.

"As a coach I'm afforded that luxury, so that's pretty cool," Boudreau said.

"Yeah, I enjoy playing with them, but you can do nothing if something is going wrong they're going to change it," added Ovechkin. "It's good for us when we have lots of good players and we can change the players and change the lines."

The juggling actually keeps everybody on edge -- and Boudreau likes to think that it preparing for the Capitals an absolute nightmare.

"For short periods of time the line is unstoppable, but to win in hockey you have to have more than one good line because it's not that difficult to stop one good line if that's all you got," he told last week. "If you put Semin on another line, now it makes the other team think, 'Who am I going to put my best checkers on tonight?' It makes it difficult for the opposing team to do their pre-scouting on who they are going to cover."

Before Boudreau made the change in Wednesday's game, he got what he wanted out of the top line. Backstrom scored a goal 1:18 into the first period off a give-and-go with Ovechkin. Semin picked up the secondary assist.

Through two periods the trio had that goal and 11 shots on goal. They were incredibly effective.

"They were making some good plays," Sabres forward Derek Roy said. "I think we gave them a little too much respect in the first period and let them carry the puck in and go cross box and make passes for one-timers. They were beating us to every loose  puck.

"It's tough against that line," he added. "You've got to be solid and you've got to be hard on them."

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