The Washington Capitals reached the Eastern Conference Final due in large part to key contributions from depth players. From veteran forward Alex Chiasson providing the Capitals’ only regulation goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins to rookie center Chandler Stephenson scoring a shorthanded dagger in the third period of an elimination game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, role players have contributed in pivotal moments throughout the Capitals’ current playoff run.
But since the Capitals took a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the balance in the Capitals’ lineup has dwindled. In the Capitals’ last three games, they have received just two goals from players not named Kuznetsov or Ovechkin. In comparison, Tampa Bay’s fourth line scored twice in Game 5 despite being matched up against the Capitals top line for the majority of the game.
The Capitals need back-to-back victories to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. With the disparity in depth between the two teams that has manifested itself in the last three games, they are going to have a hard time achieving this if at least a few of the players that struggled in those games do not begin to contribute.
Here are three such players who the Capitals need to step up in order to mount a successful comeback effort.
It feels strange mentioning Nicklas Backstrom after an anecdote on the Capitals’ depth players, but since returning to the lineup after suffering a hand injury in Game 5 against the Penguins, Backstrom has not been the core contributor the team has relied on throughout his lengthy tenure in Washington. Since returning to the lineup after missing the first three games of the series, Backstrom is without a point.
In fairness to Backstrom, he is almost certainly not 100% healthy. Due to the exhaustive efforts Backstrom and the Capitals are taking to hide his injured hand from the public, many are speculating that Backstrom is playing through a broken hand. Nevertheless, prior to Backstrom’s injury, he was contributing over a point per game. Injury or no injury, when a player who has consistently contributed to scoring plays is no longer doing-so, it makes accumulating goals as a team a much steeper task.
Goals have been hard to come by for the Capitals recently. Backstrom is a proven offensive commodity. If he can overcome injury and chip in on a few scoring plays as the Capitals attempt to stave off elimination, it could go a long way in extending their season.
About a week ago, Lars Eller was a playoff hero in Washington. Many, including Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post, sung praises of Eller after he replaced Backstrom as the Capitals’ second line center while Backstrom was out with injury. These praises were well deserved. Eller was a major reason the Capitals were able to win the first two games of the series in Tampa. With Backstrom out of the lineup in Games 1 and 2, Eller saw more ice time than any Washington forward and scored four points, including the eventual game-winner in the second period of Game 2.
Since Game 2, however, Eller has struggled. In Games 3 and 4, Eller took five penalties, two of which resulted in Lightning power play goals. After Eller remained on the second line in those games despite Backstrom’s return to the lineup, Washington head coach Barry Trotz demoted him back to the third line in Game 5.
When the Capitals needed Eller the most, with their longtime franchise center out of the lineup and needing someone to fill in on the second line, Eller excelled. Now, after three games where both Eller and the Capitals have struggled, Eller needs to elevate once more. With Lighting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy proving tough to beat, the Capitals need to generate chances against him from everywhere in the lineup. If both Eller and Backstrom are as effective as they’ve shown they can be in these playoffs, it would give Washington three legitimate scoring lines.
Much like Eller, defenseman Michal Kempny has been one of the Capitals’ unexpected heroes for much of the postseason. After Kempny scored the first goal of the series in the first period of Game 1, some in the media, such as Matthew Paras of the Washington Times, called attention to the value Kempny has provided to the team since being acquired from Chicago at the trade deadline. Indeed, Kempny has become a staple next to John Carlson and given a Washington defensive unit that is thinner than it was in previous seasons some much-needed depth.
But Kempny has not been his usual, dependable self in the last few games. In Game 4, Kempny threw a blind backhand pass to the middle of the ice that led to a goal from Tampa’s Brayden Point. The goal depleted the Capitals’ momentum after they had taken the lead early in the first period. This play was Kempny at his absolute worst. More generally, it seems like he’s had a difficult time keeping up with the Lighting’s speed and making good decisions on breakouts.
The Lightning are loaded with offensive talent and, as noted earlier, are getting contributions from top to bottom. The Capitals’ defense has to operate at maximum efficiency to weather this onslaught. Playing on the top pairing, Kempny’s effectiveness and reliability is a major aspect of this efficiency.
Kevin Hargrave covers the Washington Capitals for The Hockey Writers. A recent graduate of Ohio State University, Kevin was a freelance feature writer for the Lantern, Ohio State’s student run newspaper. With The Hockey Writers as the first major outlet he has contributed to, Kevin hopes to pursue a career in sports media.