I’m not a hockey coach. I’m not a scout. To paraphrase Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee, if I knew anything about the game I’d be in it.
But it seems to me that there are some peculiarities to the way the Caps’ post-season roster has been constructed, so I’d like to offer my two cents worth. With the extra day off between Games Three and Four, it’s the perfect opportunity for coach Dale Hunter to mix some things up, get a little bit of a different look, and get some fresh legs in there. If the Caps were up in the series, or even tied for that matter, you let things ride.
But as Game Three wore on, there was a sense of another momentum shift. You could sense the Boston Bruins finally getting under the collective skin of the Capitals. It’s their game plan. Not shockingly, when the Caps retaliated, they drew penalties. Boston scored three times in Game Three when the teams skated four-on-four. Maybe it’s time to take advantage of the depth of this roster and the wealth of experience the team has had in the press box for the first three games of this series.
First, it seems as if Jeff Schultz was inserted into the playoff roster for his experience, sitting rookie Dmitry Orlov. But unless there’s a hidden injury there, I’d like to see Dima back in the lineup. For most of the season, Orlov was the Caps’ best two-way defenseman. Sure, there were bumps along the road. But he brings an element of efficient skating and puck moving ability, plus he has an adequate amount of toughness to the back line, which will be needed as this series will just continue to get chippier as we go.
I’m not a Schultz basher. There are some benefits to his game, notably his sheer size, defensive posture and willingness to get in front of the puck. But he’s a terrible skater and useless on offense. Schultz — and his partner Dennis Wideman — are a team-low minus-four in the series, and were victimized again Monday night. It’s time for some fresh legs on the blue line to shake up this obviously flawed pairing.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be all that disappointed if Orlov jumped in for Wideman, though that simply won’t happen. Wideman, an offensive defenseman, has nary a point in the series and has become a turnover machine and liability on defense. He was caught out of position on the game-winner in Game One, and was on the ice for goals against twice in Game Three, most notably the Daniel Paille rebound goal, where the forward collected the rebound, settled the puck and outmaneuvered Braden Holtby — all completely unchallenged by the defense.
Up front, I’d sit Joel Ward and Keith Aucoin and insert Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble.
Ward has played the fewest minute of any Capitals player that has dressed for this series not named Dany Sabourin. He’s averaging just 8:36 of ice time and has been virtually invisible when he does get on the ice. Signed to a long-term contract last summer based on his terrific playoff run for Nashville last season, that success did not bear fruit in the regular season, nor has it been reinvented in this post-season.
Mathieu Perreault has been almost as quiet as Ward, and incapable of bringing any kind of physical element to the game. He’s trying, but he bounces off Boston’s rugged defensemen like he’s made of rubber. But with Perreault, you just never know. He’s the kind of guy that could steal a game for you out of nowhere, and with the Caps struggling for offensive production, I’d manage his minutes and keep him in the lineup.
Keith Aucoin is a different story. He’s played the third fewest minutes. He’s minus-two. He has one shot on goal. He took a silly tripping penalty. His primary objective when he’s out on the ice looks like he’s trying to avoid getting hit. It’s been a nice run here at the end of the season for the AHL veteran, but it’s time to get someone in the lineup that can bring an element of an NHL game to the party.
Insert Jeff Halpern. The veteran center was fifth overall in faceoff percentage in the regular season. Jay Beagle and Nick Backstrom are both over 50 percent winning draws in this series, but Brooks Laich — taking the bulk of faceoffs against Boston’s top man, Patrice Bergeron, is getting owned. His 35.6 percent in the dot is 45th out of 48 in the league in the playoffs. The Caps could use Halpern’s experience in the faceoff circle to lighten the load on Laich, especially in the defensive zone. Halpern is defensively responsible and, for lack of a better term, plucky.
Which brings us to everyone’s favorite alternate captain, Mike Knuble. Look, we can all see how Knuble’s game has deteriorated this season. He wasn’t a great skater to begin with, but he’s always had a nose for the goal, is a big body up front, and has his name on the Cup. These playoff series are why the Caps signed Knubes in the first place. It’s time to put Knuble back in the lineup, be careful with him so as to not expose him defensively at five-on-five, and see if he can provide a spark and physical presence up front where Aucoin and/or Perreault are just completely incapable.
This isn’t a panicked reaction to what turned into an ugly game in Game Three. The Caps have this wealth of talent on the bench, both young and experienced. They should use that to an advantage in Game Four.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.