- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2016

Barry Trotz didn’t want to spend time Friday morning speaking about individual matchups, but it was easy enough to read between the lines.

Trotz jumbled the Washington Capitals‘ personnel groupings during practice with an eye toward solving some of the issues that have flummoxed his team as it faces elimination in Game 5 of a second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

The biggest change affected the stagnant second line, with center Evgeny Kuznetsov moving up and trading places with Nicklas Backstrom and right wing Justin Williams moving down and swapping with Andre Burakovsky. Center Jay Beagle moved up to the third line in place of Mike Richards, who did not participate because of an illness.

Trotz jokingly referred to the decision as “using the other side of your brain once in a while,” but also downplayed its significance, noting that he has used Kuznetsov and left wing Alex Ovechkin on a line together at times during the season.

“Sometimes you do it just to shake things up,” Trotz said. “Going ahead, we’ve got last change, so that will give me a little bit different matchups. We don’t have anything to lose right now.”

Trotz pitted his top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie against that of the Penguins’ during the first two games, then was saddled with that matchup for much of Game 3 in Pittsburgh.

Coach Mike Sullivan, though, tried to free up his own top trio in Game 4, largely declining to put it against the Capitals‘ front and instead turning to his fourth line for that challenge. Not only did Washington’s top line fail to score, the move paid off offensively in the second period, when center Matt Cullen won a neutral-zone draw against Backstrom and scored the Penguins’ second goal of a 3-2 victory just eight seconds later.

The Capitals‘ top line had been together for much of the season. Backstrom missed the first three games as he recovered from offseason hip surgery and didn’t return to his typical top-line role until Nov. 18, a span of 17 games. Kuznetsov also briefly centered the top line for a four-game stretch in mid-March.

“It’s not really change something,” Kuznetsov said. “We have a plan how we’re gonna play. We practice all year — actually start from last year with the same system. We know each other and we know what we need to do on the ice, you know? Maybe some small areas we will correct a little bit, but it’s still same hockey. We just have to play our game.”

Kuznetsov, who led the Capitals with 77 points off 20 goals and 57 assists, has scored just once in the playoffs — a power-play goal in the closing minutes of a 6-1 rout of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the first round. He closed the regular season without a goal in 20 games.

Williams has also scored only one goal in the playoffs, jamming home a rebound in the final minute of a 3-2 loss to the Penguins in Game 3 with the extra attacker. He took a stick to the stomach earlier in that game and missed several shifts, and it’s possible that he has been battling some greater undisclosed injury.

“I’ve played a little better recently, but obviously, I’m counted on to support this team offensively and defensively, among other things,” Williams said. “I certainly put onus on myself to be better. A lot of us do. We all do.”

How the Capitals will approach Game 5 defensively is unclear, with Karl Alzner again sitting out of practice and Brooks Orpik participating despite a suspension. On Thursday, Trotz said that sitting Nate Schmidt for Mike Weber in Game 4 was “the right decision,” even though it was Weber’s errant pass in his own zone that set up Patric Hornqvist’s overtime winner.

If the moves don’t work, they will lead to the end of the road for the Capitals, who entered the postseason as the overall top seed but could be knocked out in the second round for the second time in as many seasons.

“All our focus is on the game tomorrow night,” Trotz said. “Let’s see if we can get a victory tomorrow night. That’s where the focus is and should be. It shouldn’t be anything past that.”

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