- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2018

With only one point in the last seven games, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie took the ice Wednesday and was paired with two familiar linemates: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Last season, Oshie scored a career-high 33 goals, often next to the Capitals’ two superstars. This season, he’s spent the most time on Washington’s second line, matched with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana instead.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said the change “was just for practice,” noting he wanted to look at different things because his team doesn’t play again until Sunday. Trotz, though, acknowledged Oshie is in a slump. 

Hockey coaches will regularly use line changes to try and spark players, and Trotz is certainly no exception.

Halfway through the NHL season, Trotz’s tinkering seems to be working.

Individual players — like Oshie and others — have had their struggles. But overall, the Capitals have found ways to win and again lead the Metropolitan Division with 53 points (25-13-3).

The road map, as Trotz likes to call it, looks different than the previous two years when the Capitals were back-to-back winners of the Presidents’ Trophy.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting through a couple of ups and downs,” Oshie said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are getting on board right now … As a team, it wasn’t that great early, but now, you see a lot of guys stepping into those roles and doing a really good job.”

Oshie hasn’t been the same since returning from a concussion on Dec. 19, scoring just one goal. The injury caused him to miss two weeks.

Likewise, forward Andre Burakovsky has been a scratch for the last two games and skated as an extra during Wednesday’s practice. Burakovsky, 22, never found a rhythm following his Dec. 8 return after missing 20 games with a broken thumb. Before the season, the Capitals expected Burakovsky to be one of the players to help fill the lost production of departed players like Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson.

Trotz, though, said the Capitals are now at a point where there is an increasing “internal pressure” to get in the lineup.

Trotz said there’s more leeway if a proven veteran is struggling. But for a younger player like Burakovsky, Trotz won’t hesitate to use players like Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly — both of whom have been more productive.

“When the group can drive itself internally through competition, that’s a fantastic thing,” Trotz said. “That’s what you want as a coach and your staff. Once it drives itself, then you’re going to win, for sure.”

The Capitals have done a lot of winning of late. In December, Washington went 10-2-2 and now ranks sixth in goals per game. Entering last month, the Capitals were just two games over .500.

The Capitals have also been pleasantly surprised by players like Smith-Pelly, originally signed for the league-minimum as a project. Instead, Smith-Pelly has play the last two games with Backstrom and Ovechkin.

After the Capitals’ 5-4 overtime win Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, Trotz admitted he wasn’t initially a fan of Smith-Pelly’s game, but the 25-year-old won him over with his play.

Forward Tom Wilson also had a big December, providing a stabilizing presence to the top line and finishing with four goals and six assists. When Trotz elevated Smith-Pelly to the first line two games ago, the Capitals coach sent Wilson to the third group to try and provide a spark.

Simply put: the Capitals have flexibility now that was a question mark at the beginning of the season.

“Every game there’s a lot of highs and lows and when we’re controlling those momentum swings, it really puts the game in our advantage,” rookie defenseman Madison Bowey said. “We’re a tremendous team when we’re skating and moving our feet and doing all the little things. We’ll just let our skill do the talking.”

Ovechkin, too, has been dominant — leading the league with 26 goals. On certain nights, the 32-year-old still can singlehandedly swing games. He took over in the win against Carolina, scoring two goals in the third period and overtime.

Though the team had a lot of new pieces to integrate, Trotz said he and the coaching staff decided to hold back when dealing with the players, opting for fewer meetings and more breathing room.

Trotz said there was no point in trying to force a process that needed to happen naturally.

“Instinctively, I felt that we needed to back off a little bit and let this group find itself a little bit again,” Trotz said. “And they have.”

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