The Washington Capitals won their third straight game Saturday – a 4-2 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Alex Ovechkin scored a hat trick, and the whole team looked strong. Are we witnessing a reboot of the Washington Capitals’ 2017-18 season?
By Glynn Cosker
DCpuckDrop Managing Editor
For reasons unknown, Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has played Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on separate lines in every game this season – except for the last three outings. While Trotz is worthy of credit for experimenting with a system that has powered through two straight regular seasons only to fail miserably in the playoffs, one has to wonder about the circumstances surrounding the anti-Ovechkin-Backstrom mentality he has displayed, because the team currently looks reborn and reinvented.
Two Bad Streaks Do A ‘180’
In the three games featuring Ovechkin and Backstrom alongside each other – against the Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ovechkin has scored five goals and Backstrom has assisted on four of them. Prior to their reunion, Ovechkin hadn’t scored in six games, while Backstrom had only three points (all assists) from 13 games. Two bad runs were flipped into good ones because of one change by Trotz that many believe was long overdue.
However, it’s likely that Trotz saw the superstar twosome as the ace in his pocket that could be played at any time. Perhaps it was his plan all along – i.e., play a quarter of the season with Ovechkin away from Backstrom in order to break in newer players like Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana and Devante Smith-Pelly; play a quarter of the season knowing that once the ship was righted by restoring #8 and #19, the team could hit cruise control for the remainder of the season. Whether or not it was a cunning stroke of genius by Trotz or merely some kind of stubbornness to prove that his team could succeed using other line options is anybody’s guess.
Ovechkin, Backstrom Bring More Of Everything
Whatever the reasons, the Washington Capitals finally played to all of their strengths over the past three games. There was more concentration, more productive shifts, more quality scoring chances, better defense, better goaltending, more shots and more goals. And, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer finally got his first win of the season – and deservedly so. Effectively, Trotz and the Capitals hit the reset button Wednesday and rebooted their up-and-down, hit-or-miss season.
In the 17 games prior to Wednesday, Backstrom had three points and a plus-minus of minus-5; in the same 17 games, Ovechkin had nine points and a plus-minus of minus-7. The pair went from 12 points in 17 games to nine points in three games – and added drive and confidence to the rest of the team. The Capitals have outscored their last three opponents 12-5, and a victory on Thursday at home to the Los Angeles King will give the Capitals a season-best four-straight wins.
Capitals ‘Trending In The Right Direction’
Saturday’s game against the Maple Leafs is a good illustration of how the Capitals have turned it around of late. Washington was 3-0 up going into the third period, but the Leafs scored two goals in fairly quick order. Most Capitals fans were likely slapping their foreheads and whispering ‘here we go again.’ However, the Caps’ concentration and determination set in and there were no more goals for Toronto – just frustration as Washington did everything they could to get two points in regulation.
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Ovechkin’s Special Night
After hearing relentless booing from the Toronto faithful early on in the game, Ovechkin did what he does best: he silenced the crowd. It was vintage Ovechkin – weaving his way through the neutral zone, into his opponents’ faces, before slamming a shot in transition from just beyond the right faceoff circle. It turned out that his goal (and his subsequent hat trick) meant a lot more to Ovechkin that first met the eye. He had a special guest inside the arena, a young man named Alex Luey who was recently diagnosed with bone cancer. Luey, 13, met with Ovechkin prior to the match-up and the big Russian promised the boy something special:
Smoother Sailing Ahead?
The Capitals have a string of six home games in a row coming up. The last three games were indicative of the Capitals of old and if the next three (or six, or 10) games are played in the same way, with the same team synergy, concentration, passion and tenacity, then the Capitals 2017-18 NHL season actually started during Thanksgiving Week in America. The bumpy road that saw some ugly losses and uglier performances has smoothed over with one change in the lines: Ovechkin-Backstrom-Any Right Wing.
Therefore, what the hockey gods have joined together, let no one separate. Until … June 2018.