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playoffs

Capitals hope moving Alex Ovechkin provides spark against Penguins

Washington forward could play on third line to help spread out offense in Game 5

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The first thing that stood out when the Washington Capitals took the ice for their practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Friday was that left wing Alex Ovechkin was wearing a white jersey.

In the vernacular of Capitals practice jerseys, white usually means the player is one of the bottom six forwards. The top six wear red.

Then Ovechkin took rushes on the third line with center Lars Eller and right wing Tom Wilson, and forward Andre Burakovsky, who had been playing with Eller and Wilson, was in a red jersey and skating in Ovechkin's usual spot on the top line with center Nicklas Backstrom and right wing T.J. Oshie.

In that Bizarro World moment, you had to wonder what Capitals coach Barry Trotz was thinking.

The Capitals are down 3-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round and need a win in Game 5 at Verizon Center in Washington on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports) to stay alive. Of the 296 teams in NHL history that have trailed 3-1 in a best-of-7 series, 28 (9.5 percent) have come back to win, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In what was a huge missed opportunity for the Capitals, the Penguins won 3-2 in Game 4 on Wednesday despite being without forwards Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Conor Sheary (concussion), defenseman Kris Letang (season-ending neck surgery) and goaltender Matt Murray (lower body). Crosby and Sheary might play Saturday, making the task even more difficult for the Capitals.

Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, but dropping Ovechkin, the most prolific goal-scorer of his generation, to the third line and replacing him with Burakovsky, who is skilled but has no goals in 10 games in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs and three in 33 career NHL postseason games, seemed drastic.

Video: Capitals on the brink of elimination after loss

Trotz said that he wanted to get Ovechkin some practice reps on the third line so he could get used to playing with Eller and Wilson in case he wants to double-shift him in that spot Saturday. The Capitals dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen in each of the past two games and that appears to be their plan again for Game 5.

"You don't have a lot of practice days [in the playoffs]," Trotz said. "When you do use 11 forwards, you end up playing with other people. It was an opportunity for us to put [Ovechkin] there and get him some reps with Lars and Tom, or maybe it's going to be [Burakovsky] there, He's played with [Burakovsky] before. It's an opportunity for us to look at maybe getting a little more production out of that third group."

Getting production from throughout the lineup was something the Capitals took pride in during the regular season. On their way to winning the Presidents' Trophy and finishing third in the League with 261 goals, they had 11 forwards who scored at least 10.

But in the playoffs they've again become a top-heavy team, one of their flaws when they lost to the Penguins in the second round last season. Wilson, who has three goals, is the only one of the Capitals' bottom six forwards to score in this postseason.

The imbalance has been even greater against the Penguins. Evgeny Kuznetsov (three), Backstrom (two) and Ovechkin (one) were the only Capitals forwards to score in the first four games.

So you can understand why Trotz is searching for ways to squeeze goals out of other parts of the lineup. Ovechkin said Trotz explained it to him as "just [trying] to get three lines going."

It did not sound as if Ovechkin knew that it was part of a plan for him to be double-shifted, but he was willing to try anything at this point.

"I think it's just a situation where you want to switch up the lines and get better, I hope, and I hope it's going to work," Ovechkin said.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

Ovechkin was critical of himself following Game 4, saying, "I have to play much better." He had two shots on goal and two shot attempts blocked in 19:37 of ice time. He didn't have a point for the first time in the series. He also took two offensive-zone penalties, one that cut short a Capitals power play.

But Backstrom (no shots on goal, two attempts) and Oshie (two shots on goal, two attempts) also did not play well Wednesday.

"I don't think we had success as a [line] in that game, so I hope [the line change] is going to work," Ovechkin said. "I hope it's going to work well and we're going to produce and we're going to score and we're going to win."

Trotz credited Ovechkin for accepting his share of the blame. But he needs to do more than that.

"The bottom line is we need him to be really good," Trotz said. "He's got to respond this next game and be a difference maker for us. We need contributions from everybody in our lineup. We need our top players to be the best players and that goes [for] everybody from our goaltender right through our lineup, forwards and defense. Those guys … they're the leaders. They're the guys everybody follows. They're the guys that have to lead the way."

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