- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — During his pregame meeting with the media before Game 2 on Sunday afternoon, Bruce Boudreau was asked about his philosophy on matching lines.

The Washington Capitals coach talked about having defensively responsible players on all four lines, but he also closed with “and you have Alex [Ovechkin]’s line, and you hope they outscore the opposition when they are on the ice.”

Three games into this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, one of the top lines has been dominant and the other ineffective. The problem for the Caps — it has been the wrong one. While Philadelphia’s top trio of Danny Briere, Vinny Prospal and Scott Hartnell has played great, the Caps’ top unit of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov has struggled.

“[The Flyers] are doing a great job, and it is up to those guys to battle through it,” Boudreau said. “There is nothing you can say magically or anything else. It is ‘Go out there, play hard and fight through this stuff’ and ‘Do the simple stuff’ and ‘Don’t get frustrated.’ ”

Kozlov has been held without a point, though he probably had his best game of the series Tuesday night at Wachovia Center. Backstrom has a lone secondary assist and has appeared to have problems with the Flyers’ physical nature.

But few people would have predicted Ovechkin’s lack of production to this point. He does have three points in the three games, but two of them are power-play assists (he and Backstrom picked up points on the same goal in Game 1).

There was the highlight-reel quality theft and score to win Game 1, but otherwise the prohibitive favorite to sweep the league’s MVP honors has remained quiet.

“[The Flyers are] playing well on ‘D,’ ” Ovechkin said. “[Goalie Martin] Biron play well, and they don’t give me space to shoot the puck. No, not physical. They just skate with me, and if I have puck they jump to me.”

The Caps are struggling to get shots to the net, and Ovechkin is one the team’s most troubled shooters. He has 12 shots on net in the series, but 19 attempts have been blocked or gone wide of the mark. As a team, only 30.6 percent of the Caps’ shots were on target Tuesday night.

“That’s why we have to practice,” Ovechkin said. “We have to practice and then maybe change something — change our system, change our mind and be ready for tomorrow.”

Well, Boudreau made some changes at practice yesterday. He flopped the centers on his top two lines — Backstrom and Sergei Fedorov — and also altered the power play.

Whether Fedorov, Ovechkin and Kozlov skate together tonight during Game 4 of a series the Flyers lead 2-1 remains to be seen. Boudreau was in true playoff form after the team’s workout.

“Just screwing around — seeing if anything would work,” Boudreau said. “You’ll probably see them back to normal tomorrow. I was just seeing if there was anything there that I liked.”

When asked whether he saw anything he liked, he responded with a chuckle, “I can’t say that. I can’t — you guys want everything.”

What is likely to be on display in Game 4 is a new alignment and a philosophy adjustment when the Caps have the extra man. They are 2-for-16 in the series, and defenseman Mike Green has both tallies.

At practice yesterday Brooks Laich replaced Alexander Semin on the top unit, and he was stationed in close proximity to the net. The other four players essentially made a diamond with Fedorov at the top of the zone, Green and Backstrom on the wings and Ovechkin in front a few feet farther away from the goaltender than Laich.

“We want to get more shots there and get more traffic,” Laich said. “I think sometimes we’ve been a little too perimeter [oriented] on our power play. One for seven [in Game 3] is not good enough. We need to do a better job than that, so we’re going to look to get pucks there, traffic in front and hopefully bang in a couple.”

Added Backstrom: “The first couple games, we haven’t had much traffic. We have to have more people in front and shoot the puck more. Everyone has to shoot — even me. That is the biggest key to winning [tonight] I think.”

Today’s game

WASHINGTON CAPITALS AT PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

When: 7 p.m.

Where: Wachovia Center

TV/radio: CSN, Versus, FM-106.7

Goalies: Capitals — Cristobal Huet (1-2, 3.70). Flyers — Martin Biron (2-1, 2.68).

Injuries: Capitals — Out: C Michael Nylander (torn rotator cuff), RW Chris Clark (groin), D Brian Pothier (concussion). Doubtful: D Jeff Schultz (back spasms). Flyers — Out: LW Simon Gagne (concussion), D Mike Rathje (hip/back). Probable: D Kimmo Timonen (upper body).

Notes: Schultz did not practice yesterday. He said he was stiff and wasn’t sure whether he could skate this morning. Timonen hopes to play after leaving Game 3 early when Caps forward Brooks Laich shoved him into the goal. Amid all of the other problems the Caps have had, they are also experiencing less success in the faceoff circle. The top three faceoff players for the Caps — David Steckel, Boyd Gordon and Sergei Fedorov — all won more than 55 percent of the draws they took during the regular season. Those three are at 43.3, 50 and 50 percent, respectively, in the series.

Corey Masisak

KEYS TO THE GAME

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Hit the net: Yes, the Caps have been outmuscled. Yes, the power play has struggled. But a huge problem has been a lack of shots on Flyers goaltender Martin Biron. He has not been better than Cristobal Huet in this series; he has just seen less rubber. Washington has had fewer than 10 shots in six of the nine periods, and the most was 12 in the third period of Game 1. The Caps scored three goals in that period. If the Caps put more shots on net and do a better job scrapping for rebounds, they can beat Biron.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

More of the same: Until the Caps can make someone pay for harassing Huet, keep doing it. Until the Caps prove they can withstand the physical abuse along the boards, keep doing it. Until Alex Ovechkin can find holes in the defensive strategy, keep doing it. When you are one bad period from a 3-0 series lead, what else is there?

Corey Masisak

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