To beat Boston, the Capitals need more from their top nine at five-on-five

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To beat Bruins, the Capitals need more from their top nine originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The common refrain throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that, in order for a team to be successful, there must be scoring from the depth players in order to make any sort of noise. 

The unspoken caveat there is that the secondary scoring comes along with goals from the team’s top players.

Through three games (and about a period and a half of overtime), the Capitals’ depth players have held up their end of the bargain at five-on-five. The top nine still has some work to do. 

Washington has scored eight times against Boston this series, goals that have come from: Tom Wilson, Brenden Dillon, Nic Dowd, T.J. Oshie (PPG), Garnet Hathaway, Hathaway again, Alex Ovechkin (PPG) and Dowd. 

“Boston has done a good job in their defensive zone coverage, the thing we talked about today to try and see if we can generate a little bit more,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “There are times when we’re in the offensive zone and we’re staying there. We’re moving and we’re generating, we’re looking and still they play good defense. You’ve got to work for each other to create.”

Related: A timeline of the wild Capitals goalie depth chart

Just six of the Capitals’ goals in three games have come at five-on-five, and the fourth line has accounted for 50 percent of their total goals. For a team with superior depth to the Bruins, that’s not the way to win a series. 

The Bruins are known for their top two elite scoring lines that have made life massively difficult for the Capitals and every team that’s faced them since they acquired Taylor Hall. But where they run into trouble is on the back-half of their roster, where the bottom six has been outperformed by the Capitals’ depth. 

The Capitals just got Evgeny Kuznetsov back from the COVID-19 list and have only had him at their disposal once — and he certainly wasn’t at 100 percent in terms of game shape. The Capitals have tinkered a bit, putting Anthony Mantha, Nicklas Backstrom and Wilson together for Game 2 instead of T.J. Oshie at right wing, who skated with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin.

“I think right now with Kuzy coming back in, I still think we’re looking for a little bit more production after Game 1 and Game 2, so we made a switch,” Laviolette said. “We might make more switches with regards to that to see if we can generate a few more scoring chances or another even-strength goal and find some chemistry there. So players coming in and out of the lineup has affected that a little bit.”

Still, if the Capitals are going to win the series, they’ll need five-on-five production from their top line players that they haven’t gotten yet. But that’s not to say they’re not close. 

Mantha is tied for the team lead in shots with 12 and hasn’t found the back of the net, even with a High-Danger Chances For percentage of 64.29.

“He’s been in-tight with some chances, he’s bringing the puck to the net, he’s a big body, he’s generating and he’s got a history of scoring goals,” Laviolette said. “You’d like to think that it’s gonna pop for him. I do think he’s one of the guys that’s inside and has had some quality looks.”

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Ovechkin, the team’s best goal-scorer, has scored just once on 12 shots this series and it came on the powerplay. Oshie, who can be lethal on the powerplay, has just one goal this series. Backstrom, Conor Sheary, Daniel Sprong and Lars Eller, all of whom contributed significant offense in the season, haven’t found the back of the net yet. 

“The numbers are so close inside of the games, the in-tight chances, the total chances, the powerplays, the penalty kills, the zone time, it’s tight,” Laviolette said. “It’s a tight series, it’s close. The difference is small and we’ve got to find a way to bring that difference to our side.”

Of course, the playoffs are nothing but a small sample size that can be viewed through a microscope time and time again. But as much as the fourth line’s goals have been wildly important for the Capitals, they cannot count on Hathaway shooting 33.3 percent over the long haul, or Dowd shooting 50 percent for a lengthy playoff run.

While those numbers can hold up over a seven-game series in a small sample, the numbers the Capitals don’t hold up are the goal totals from their top nine. Because if those players start to score, the Capitals will be in a wildly different place in a few days than they are right now.

“Having OV is the guy who has always believed in the patience and you have to wait,” Kuznetsov said. “You have to be patient during the game and take what they give you. Sometimes you can see during the game some areas that open up, to me in this series, the most important (part) is discipline, be patient and work harder than they work. If you can outwork them, then some chances will create and some areas will open up. But we have to be patient, we have to execute the plan, and things will open up eventually, for sure.”