Caps bounce back with win over Columbus
When the Capitals’ coaching staff shook up the forward lines and defense pairings last week, one combination that was left untouched was the top line of center Nicklas Backstrom, left wing Marcus Johansson and right wing Alex Ovechkin.
Through eight games, the trio has combined for just three even-strength goa and is a combined minus-12, which averages out to a minus-4 as a unit.
By comparison, last season Backstrom [plus-8], Johansson [plus-3] and Ovechkin [plus-2] were a combined plus-13, with a little more than half of their goals  coming at even strength.
“The whole team needs to be better in our own end and then go on offense and take the chances when we get them,” Johansson said.
Adam Oates admits plus-minus numbers can often be skewed – Ovechkin was on the ice for a goal against after coming out of the penalty box last week – but he sas he’s like better 5-on-5 play from his top line.
“I think we can get more out of it,” Oates said. “They’re getting their looks. You don’t want anybody to be a minus player.”
Ovechkin has seven of the line’s eight goals this season, with four of them coming on the power play. He scored an even-strength goal last week against the Oilers from the high slot, backing up to drill a feed from Johansson.
Oates is trying to get Ovechkin to score from more areas of the ice than at any other time in his career. That’s why, instead seeing Ovechkin parked in the left circle, you’ll see him sneak in a few steps toward the goal or moonwalk back a few strides into the slot, creating better shooting angles.
The thought is that if Ovechkin makes himself a moving target, he becomes that much more difficult to defend. Oates was asked if the reinvention of Ovechkin reminds him of Brett Hull, who scored a career-high 72 and 86 goals when he was paired with Oates in 1989-90 and 1990-91.
“They have the same release, the same power on their shots,” Oates said. “Ovi has the physical strength Brett didn’t have, but the more he learns the more he’s going to tap into that.”
Oates said there are times Ovechkin is tired of hearing about the comparisons to Hull, but when he’s “in the mood,” he tries to instill new wrinkles in Ovechkin’s game.
“I’m so conscious of not overloading him so he can play,” Oates said. “But if I see a hole maybe he can exploit I’m going to show him it.”
Oates said Johansson made a “great play” to find Ovechkin in the high slot against Edmonton and that Ovechkin created a shooting lane by backing into position.
“You don’t want to fade too far because the goaltending’s too good,” Oates said. “You’re not going to score from too far out. Marcus only has a split second there to make that play and if you’re not in that hole no play is going to happen. That’s why every guy is important on that line.”
It’s also why Oates is hesitant to break it up.
“We love to play together,” said Johansson, who is still seeking his first goal of the season. “I think we’re creating chances, maybe not as much as we like, but we do have chances and we just need to find a way to score. It’s been a tough start so far, but we know what we’re doing out there and a couple lucky bounces and it’s turned around.”