- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

In his press conference Monday night after the Washington Capitals won their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Barry Trotz said this phrase no fewer than three times: “Next guy up.”

It might belong on a list of the greatest sports cliches, but that doesn’t make it any less descriptive of how the Capitals pulled out a series-clinching win while missing some of their best players.

“Next guy up. To me it’s about playing the right way, it’s playing systematically, trusting in the guy next to you that he’s gonna get his job done and just playing as a unit,” Trotz said.

Though the Capitals may have had more talented rosters in recent years, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy but inevitably lost to the Penguins in round two, this appears to be the year the system has clicked most.

The team no doubt will want to have Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky back, fully recovered from upper-body injuries, in time for the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the Penguins series showed the Capitals can go deep when they need to do so.

When Tom Wilson was handed a three-game suspension, Devante Smith-Pelly took his place on the top line for Game 4, but he struggled to produce. Halfway into Saturday’s Game 5, Trotz moved rookie forward Jakub Vrana up to replace Smith-Pelly. Vrana had made an assist earlier in the game, then assisted Evgeny Kuznetsov on the game-tying goal and scored the go-ahead goal himself.

It almost sounded like Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to give Vrana credit after Game 5. He was asked twice about Vrana’s big moment on the top line.

“It doesn’t matter who’s gonna play with who,” Ovechkin said. “We just have to stick to the plan and play our game.”

But he was just trying to attest to the importance of every player fulfilling his role. That counts for everyone, from Ovechkin playing in his 109th career playoff game to Nathan Walker playing in his first.

Walker, another rookie, got the nod to join Alex Chiasson and Jay Beagle on the fourth line in Game 6. He responded by getting the primary assist on the game’s first goal: skating behind the Pittsburgh net and finding Alex Chiasson open at the right circle.

Chiasson, too, was an unlikely hero — after playing in all 12 of Washington’s playoff games, he picked the best possible time to score his first goal of the postseason.

Like Walker, center Travis Boyd also made his playoff debut Monday after Backstrom was ruled out. Boyd and Walker joined a group of seven Washington rookies to make their postseason debuts this year. Five of them have recorded at least one point, a franchise record.

“It just shows the depth, obviously, of the organization and the team,” Beagle said. “Three of our top six were out. And guys came in and stepped in and stepped up, and that makes it even a little bit sweeter.”

The Lightning are a deeper team than the Penguins and just as experienced. Their fourth line from their series-clinching win over Boston — Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan and former Penguin Chris Kunitz — has a combined 338 games of playoff experience. Beagle, Chiasson and Walker have a combined 100.

The Capitals will need every ounce of production they can get from their lineups night-to-night to compete with Tampa Bay. As Trotz might ask his locker room: Who’s the next guy up?

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