A happier time. (Photo credit: Greg Fiume)

Less than a day after the Caps dropped their second game of the series to Tampa Bay, Bruce Boudreau was asked to assess the state of his club:

“We’re not panicking here. We’re not moving everybody all over the place. We switched lines around because Mike [Knuble] was back in the lineup and we’ll go with that lineup again tomorrow.”

I’m with Bruce on the no panicking part. After all, all three times a team has taken a 2-0 lead on the road against the Washington Capitals, that team has gone on to lose the series. Where he loses me is doing the same thing but expecting different results — especially when there are better options out there.

Earlier this season I looked at all the different line combinations that Boudreau has used to spark the offense, and that got me to thinking how one might optimize their roster. For instance, does Chimera’s speed justify putting him on the top line? Or is Laich the key to having a good secondary scoring line? Perhaps the answer to the latter is yes, but when you are down two games to nothing in the playoffs you have to go with the line combos that have performed the best. Some of you have asked for who my ideal line combos would be, so here they are.

First, I need to address the issue of sample size. With all of Boudreau’s line combinations, there are some that have spent more time together than others, thus we can be more certain of their true impact. I will look only at those combinations that have spent more than 20 minutes on the ice together at even strength, which encompasses around 25 shifts. Boudreau has pulled combos within three shifts on the ice together, so using more than a game’s worth is not something I consider too far fetched. However, just as Holtby sympathizers will argue to ride the “hot hand,” I too will argue that with home-ice advantage squandered it’s time to go all in– and that includes those lines that have seen the best success even if they have had limited time together.

To make my recommendations I looked at a few metrics, the first being scoring chance percentage (SC%), which is simply a ratio of how many even strength scoring chances go in Washington’s favor when this trio is on the ice. Conversion rate is how many goals are scored off of those scoring chances, while Rel Corsi QoC is a metric that helps gauge the quality of competition faced. With all of these numbers, higher is better. I will also include average shot and goal distance to get a sense of if they prefer to work from the perimeter or crash the net. All data will be during even strength, unless otherwise noted.

Line Combo SC% Convert% Avg Shot Distance Avg Goal Distance Rel Corsi QoC
Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr 61.5% 18.8% 30.1 35.7 2.71

The top line has seen many iterations, but it has always had one consistent element: Alexander Ovechkin. Despite Backstrom’s troubles he remains the best fit for riding shotgun, which leaves room for one more. Mike Knuble has been given the most time as the third wheel, but due to either his age or deteriorated skill he looks to be a liability for this line. The Chimera Experiment was (thankfully) short lived and while injury perhaps cost him an extended audition for the top spot, I think Eric Fehr has shown more than an ability to not only create chances, but to finish them as well.

Line Combo SC% Convert% Avg Shot Distance Avg Goal Distance Rel Corsi QoC
Semin-Arnott-Laich 73.1% 10.5% 36.8 24.7 3.04

The second line is easy, and it starts with Alex Semin. Semin is a rare talent that can put points on the board, and despite frustrating fans and coached alike with stick penalties in the offensive zone, when it comes to goal scoring, there are few peers. When Jason Arnott came over in a trade for David Steckel, he quickly assumed the mantle of The Sasha Whisperer, almost exorcising #BadShasha once and for all. Add Brooks Laich to the mix and you have a second line that has the potential of keeping up with most other team’s first lines in scoring.

Line Combo SC% Convert% Avg Shot Distance Avg Goal Distance Rel Corsi QoC
Sturm-MJ90-Chimera 50.0% 0.0% 35.9 39 0.57
Knuble-MJ90-Chimera 58.1% 11.1% 39 23.2 2.12

Rookie Marcus Johannson has, by all accounts, had a solid inaugural season. He filled in admirably for Backstrom when the Super Swede went down with injury, and has held his own in the faceoff circle. During Game 5 of the Ranger series, we saw MJ90 had a second gear as he scooted down the ice, keeping pace with Chimera on a two on one breakaway that Chimera’s hands of Venus de Milo just couldn’t finish. Still, these two form the cornerstone of the third line, but the third forward is a toss up between Mike Knuble and Marco Sturm.

Line Combo SC% Convert% Avg Shot Distance Avg Goal Distance Rel Corsi QoC
Hendricks-BGordon-Bradley 55.2% 9.4% 35.8 28 -1.04

The fourth line serves a purpose beyond scoring: don’t give up goals against and generate energy. This line takes the majority of defensive zone draws that Backstrom doesn’t and will fight for your honor if the situation warrants. It comes down to grit, and there has been no better combination than Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley.

Sometimes you believe in the stats. Sometimes you believe in the players. Sometimes you should just throw caution to the wind and roll the dice with the best options you have.

Additional reporting by Chris Gordon and Ian Oland.

  • Greg

    I don’t know who you scratch at this point. Knuble was invisible last night with the exception of the one play where he deflected one right into Roloson. And Sturm isn’t generating points, but he seems like he’s generating energy every time he’s out there. Hendricks is a change of pace guy, and what if there’s a shootout (lulz)! But in all seriousness, I dunno who of those three should get the scratch.

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  • JW90

    Sturm-Johansson-Chimera is a scary fast line…. Probably the fastest in the NHL. Knuble shouldnt really be on the fourth line, but you never know, maybe this way you’d get some goals out of Bradley and Gordon…

  • Pat

    Maybe kanoobs isn’t 100% healthy yet, and we should sit him (at least for game 3) and let hendy play! We have the most solid 4th line in the playoffs, methinks….

    Everyone’s stepped up their game, it’s your turn, Backstrom!

  • David

    Scratch Bradley and drop Chimera to the 4th line as a grinder. We need offense, and Bradley has none. Agree with Laich on the 2nd line, I think 22 and 16 and interchangeable on the top line/third line. Speed has done us no good against the 1-3-1.

  • David

    Also, I vote scratching Shultz if Wideman is healthy. And if BB wants a goaltending change (even though I think Neuvy should start game 3), I suggest throwing in Braden Holtby. I’m no Holtby-rider, but it would give the series a needed jolt, and Holtby has been awesome against the Lightning.

  • Colin

    Good analysis, but I may disagree against Nicky on the top line. Under normal circumstances with a healthy 19, it’s a no brainer. But something is wrong with him right now. Not sure if its physical or mental, but he’s just not all there. I’d move him to the third line and move up Mojo, at least to start the game.

    Otherwise, no amount of 5×5 line changing will be of any use unless they fix the PP and fast. Ovi has to come off the point. It’s just not working. They also have to use more bodies on the PP to keep everyone fresh. Some of them are overused with no results and then are gassed for 5×5 play. Fix the PP and no one will be dissecting the even strength lines.

  • Avtopilot

    The big problems i see so far are:
    1) the disappearance of Backstrom
    This means less passes to Ovi, that limits the usage of his one-timer – check number of assists of Ovi – yes, this means, he actually became a playmaker on the top line.
    That’s not Ok, either Arnott or MoJo shall be on the top line.

    2) ineffective PP
    Ovi at the point doesn’t work.
    let’s go with 2D – Hannan+Green+Ovi+Arnott+Laich (Knubble) for the crease-crashing mode, Hannan+Green +Ovi+MoJo+Semin for the shooting-puck moving mode

  • @CapFans1426

    Thanks Neil. You make strong arguments for all cases, and line combinations. And that leaves little room for doubt. Throughout the season the numbers haven’t and don’t lie. And if I am BBBB, use the mantra “ride with what got us here!”

    This Caps team has the fight in it to come back from this deficit. We all saw it happen against the Rags, down 3-0 and win it double OT. So, here’s to hanging it all out tonight (and hoping the PP kicks in!)

    Go Caps!

  • Would someone please tell me WTF Schultz is doing out on the ice during a PK? He and Hannan were out during every PK the other night except (of course) the PK in which he was in the box. He does not belong on a PK against a speedy team like Tampa … it was utterly ridiculous and why they scored twice on the PK. Love Hannan, but Schultz is becoming more and more of a liability.

    I think Knubes has to sit for game 3 and put Hendy back on line 4.

    BB was back to his old tricks on Sunday night of fiddling with lines and it was so confusing to everyone. He needs to dance with them that brung him and use the line combos that worked so well at the end of the season and against the Rags. He doesn’t need to change up the lines to battle the 1-3-1.

  • K4

    Avtopilot, great points… My lines:
    Chimera-Johanson-Ovie -Creates space with MaJo and Chim’s speed
    Laich-Arnott-Semin -Skill and possession
    Knuble-Backstrom-Fehr -Size and possession
    Hendricks-Gordon-Sturm -Speed and grit

    Sit Green and Schultz if Wideman and Poti are healthy. Force Green to a neurologist…i think the bell’s still ringing from the last puck to the head.

    Only worried about a win tonight. The rest of the series will wait.

  • Knuble’s Knights

    Neil can you explain how it’s a toss-up between Knuble and Sturm for third-line. Higher scoring chance, higher conversion (compared to 0%), higher RCQ – seems like a better line with Knuble across the board, right? (Not that we’re biased.) Interesting that Mr. Crash the Net would be on the line here with the longest average shot distance and the shortest average goal distance. Stats are cool.

  • Esskay

    Good post. I agree with most of your choices, though I wish there was a better role for Knuble. I agree that he’s one of our best net crashers and I think we need that if we’re going to break Rolo.

    I think the most important thing is to stop breaking up Arnott/Semin. Arnott has shown an amazing ability to ignite 28 and I don’t understand why we would mess with that. Sasha Whisperer indeed.

  • Zack

    Semin Backstrom Ovie
    Knuble MOJO Arnott
    Fehr Laich Chimera
    Hendricks or Sturm Gordon Bradley

    GO CAPS GO!!!

  • Brad in Arlington

    Fehr is a leap, but you did say out of the box thinking. So, OK. One change I would make is swap #90 and #19. Backstrom is not doing squat, and is a liability to the top line, and to Ovie, who is trying to make up for 19’s absence.
    Major fix for the power play is to get Ovie the hell off the point. First, he is lousy at it. Second, it makes no sense to have perhaps the leagues best scorer anchored 60 feet away from the goal. Or carrying the puck all the way up from his own end, then creating offside opportunities.

  • karnoldo

    scratch green. put in wideman. enuff said.

  • Brad

    Green, Schultz, and Hannan are killing us in the D-zone

  • GreenGuy

    @Brad, disagree on Hannan – except for his piss-poor change last game that directly caused the TBL OT Winner, he’s been pretty good.

    Schultz needs to step it up. Unfortunately speed is not something you can teach….

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