Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson skated on the top line with Alex Ovechkin. Jakub Vrana is blossoming into a scoring machine. The top six defensemen are all healthy once again.
In more ways than one, the Washington Capitals finally look like the team that won the Stanley Cup a year ago.
That’s not to say they are the best team in the NHL right now. When they embarked on a six-game road trip that started Tuesday night in Columbus, the Capitals were 31-18-7 (69 points), tied for the ninth-best record in the league.
After visiting the division rival Blue Jackets, the Capitals will face the three California teams, including the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks (34-16-17 as of Monday). The road trip wraps with games at the Toronto Maple Leafs, another talented foe, and the Buffalo Sabres.
It will be an important trip for Washington. Thus, it’s a good time for them to be looking and skating like last year’s Cup team.
The forward lines and defensive pairings coach Todd Reirden assembled in Monday’s game, a 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings, were as close as the Capitals’ lineup has looked to the Cup-clinching Game 5 last June. In addition to the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson top line, Vrana and T.J. Oshie flanked Nicklas Backstrom on the second line, and Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Brett Connolly kept up a recent surge of good play on the third.
The only difference between Monday’s lineup and the Stanley Cup — besides Pheonix Copley starting at goalie in order to split a back-to-back with Braden Holtby — was Nic Dowd playing fourth-line center, Jay Beagle’s spot last year. That was it.
“I think that going on the road, everyone has their matchups that they want to get to, particularly as a home team, and I think we become an extremely difficult matchup if that’s how our top three lines are gonna play,” Reirden said. “And then the fourth line can contribute some minutes and help out in some different special teams areas of the game. Again, that’s closer to the lineup we expected, outside Braden, playing at the start of the year, and that’s a lineup that I feel comfortable with that has had some success together.”
Defenseman Christian Djoos’ recent return from a thigh procedure not only meant the defensive pairings now reflect the Stanley Cup lineup, it also makes this the healthiest point of the Capitals’ season.
It isn’t merely about where the names are penciled in on the lineup sheet, but how they perform. Kuznetsov has rediscovered his form, recording six goals and six assists in the Capitals’ six-game homestand. Remember, he was briefly relegated to the third line during a slump in January.
Vrana, in his second full NHL season, has already surpassed his career highs in goals and assists. Through Monday, he was at 17 goals, 16 apples and counting. Wilson has already tied his career-best total of 14 goals despite missing the first 16 games of the year while suspended.
Even Connolly has caught fire as of late. He has set a career high with 30 points.
Amazingly, all of these new career marks have been reached with more than 30 percent of the regular season still to play.
According to Corsica Hockey, the line of Burakovsky, Eller and Connolly has played the second-most minutes (195) of any Capitals line combination this season. It helps that Burakovsky is playing his best hockey of the year, picking up four points in the last three games of the homestand.
But it remains to be seen if that line will be broken up by a possible Burakovsky trade. The winger is definitely on the market, and The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported Monday that Washington would want to add a middle-six forward if they can move Burakovsky — a player-for-player “hockey trade,” as general manager Brian MacLellan described it last month.
Still, there’s more chemistry elsewhere. Vrana, Backstrom and Oshie have the third-most minutes of all Capitals line combos and 10 goals so far to show for it. With Vrana having cemented himself as a top-six forward, the trio has the potential to be a tough matchup for anyone.
After Monday’s win, some forwards downplayed any particular chemistry they have with their lines from the playoff run.
“I think in our team we can play with anybody because I believe we’re pretty good guys in the locker room,” Kuznetsov said, “and it’s always easy to have chemistry and communicate on the ice when you find a way to talk with your partner inside the locker room. That always help you.”
“On this team, it doesn’t really matter who we play with, there’s always some chemistry between each other,” Vrana said. “Yeah, today we played like playoffs last year and important win.”