It wasn’t a desperate change even though the Washington Capitals’ season was on the cusp of ending. When coach Bruce Boudreau juggled his third line before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, it wasn’t met with surprised reactions.
Boudreau elevated wing Matt Bradley from the fourth line to replace Eric Fehr and team with center David Steckel and wing Brooks Laich - more of a tweak than an overhaul.
But the move continues to pay off. In four games, the trio has combined for three goals and seven assists, including three points in Saturday’s 3-2, series-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think we have great chemistry,” Steckel said. “We’re the same type of player for the most part, so we know where each other is going to be at. We work hard, move our feet and that helps us out.”
During a sluggish opening, the third line tied the score at 1-1 when Steckel slammed home a rebound. Bradley and Laich got the assists on Steckel’s first goal of the playoffs.
If the Caps have an “energy line,” it’s the Bradley-Steckel-Laich unit. Each player had at least 12:54 of ice time against the Penguins.
“The three of us are hard-working guys who take pride in defense, so usually if you play well defensively, you’ll get rewarded offensively,” Bradley said. “We’ve had some lucky bounces, which we’re definitely happy about.”
The lucky bounce came against the Rangers on April 24 when Bradley coupled his short-handed goal with a bad-angle shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist.
Bradley is a grinder, Steckel is a penalty killer who is good on faceoffs (11-for-17 on Saturday) and Laich has the most scoring skill of the trio and saw time on Nicklas Backstrom’s line in Game 7 against the Rangers on Tuesday. He was back to the third group Saturday.
“I understand the move, and wherever you’re put, you want to play as well as you can,” Laich said. “I know my role on this line. I think I can bring some versatility and depth. Tonight we scored a goal and the other night we got a goal, too. [When] we can get scoring from three or four lines instead of two with scoring by committee, we’re a lot more dangerous.”
Game 1 dominance
The Caps are 7-1 against Pittsburgh in Game 1s. They’ve also lost six of the first seven series. Laich channeled former NFL coach Dennis Green when asked about the significance of a series-opening win.
“This just the tip of the iceberg, boys,” Laich said. “We realize they are a very good hockey team. They are who we thought they were. They’re very deep, they play hard, they play aggressive and they’re going to be tough to beat.”
Despite skating on the second line with Backstrom and Alexander Semin, the well had dried up for Tomas Fleischmann since he opened the scoring in Game 1 of the conference quarterfinals.