Capitals have opportunity to experiment before playoffs


The Capitals have rolled out a number of different line combinations over the course of the season and that does not seem to be slowing down now with less than a month to go in the regular season. You may think this would be the time for teams to settle on a lineup, but for Washington and head coach Peter Laviolette, it is the opposite. With the team not playing at its best, new pieces to plug into the lineup and their place in the standings likely cemented in place, now is the time for Washington to experiment in order to find the right combinations for its playoff lineup.

Shuffling lines have been the norm this season with multiple injuries and coronavirus absences. But while teams typically strive for lineup consistency, we have not seen much of that in recent weeks. That was somewhat to be expected with the additions of Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson at the trade deadline.

With Larsson, T.J. Oshie, Nic Dowd and Trevor van Riemsdyk all working their way back from injury, the line combinations have been in a blender essentially daily at this point. Even Tuesday's practice lines were dramatically different from what we saw in Sunday's game.

All of this, however, is by design.

"For me, it's just been a changing, evolving thing the entire year," Laviolette said prior to Sunday's game. "Tonight's a starting point with a group that's hopefully getting healthier. We'll see where it goes from tonight. We'll start with the lineup, but we've to play well inside of that lineup. And, if you don't, for me, you don't let it sit too long, you look to make changes."

The regular season in the NHL is typically a delicate balance between trying to succeed in the regular season while also preparing for the playoffs. Shuffling the lines from game to game may not be ideal in terms of finding consistency and stringing some wins together, but the fact is that probably does not matter all that much for the Caps at this point in the season because of the standings.

In most years, the NHL season comes down to a number of races with multiple teams vying for the last few playoff spots. That may be true in the Western Conference. In the East, however, we pretty much know who the eight playoff teams are already and we have known for months.

Washington currently sits in the second wild-card spot in the East with 84 points. Above them in the division is the Pittsburgh Penguins with 92 points. The Caps have two games in hand, but that is still a steep hill to climb in the final 13 games of the regular season. In the other wild card spot, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins are tied with 93 points. Again, a pretty wide gap. Below Washington, the first team out of the playoffs is the New York Islanders who trail the Caps by 11 points. Yes, the Islanders have been hot with four wins in five games, but that still only brought the gap to 11 points.

The point is that Washington is almost certainly locked into that second wild card spot with wide gaps in the standings above and below them. If the team is not chasing anyone and not fending anyone off, now is the perfect time to experiment with lines because it does not matter all that much if they don't work. You can just switch them up and move on and it's not costing you precious points in a playoff race.

Now let's be clear. Of course, the Caps should try to figure their lines out as soon as possible and build some momentum going into the postseason. Shuffling the lines all the way up to the season finale would not be an ideal strategy. Having said that, the team is not playing all that great right now with two straight losses at a combined score of 11-2, four losses in their last five games at home and an overall record just barely over .500 (17-16-3) in the 2022 calendar year.

The Capitals have the flexibility to experiment and find the right line combinations that will maximize this team's performance in the postseason. That is far more important than just arbitrarily sticking to line combinations because that's what you're supposed to do. So almost everything should and is on the table for Laviolette.

Who will is the best fit to play right wing on the top line? What is the best combination for the second line? Is Lars Eller or Connor McMichael better suited to center the third? Where does Johansson fit into the lineup? Does Larsson fit on the fourth line as well as he appears to on paper? What are the best line combinations and what are the fixes if players like Oshie or Dowd -- both of whom have struggled to stay healthy this season -- should get injured again?

Even the starting goalie job -- a position Vitek Vanecek seemed to have locked up just a few weeks ago -- seems to again be up for grabs.

“I’d like to have a guy that has emerged and moved forward from that group,” Laviolette said. “They’re both [Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov] good goaltenders but you really want somebody to really take hold of it. And there’s an opportunity for them down the stretch here.”

Just about the only position Laviolette seems satisfied with is his defense.

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