Fehrsie looking resplendent at right wing. (Photo credit: Greg Fiume)
Martin Erat and Eric Fehr have both spent significant time this season stuck on the fourth line, a misuse of their considerable talent. But with Alex Ovechkin missing his second game due to an upper-body injury, both wingers now find themselves on Washington’s top trio, skating 20 minutes a night. In 120 minutes of play, the new first line of Erat, Nicklas Backstrom, and Fehr has been fantastic, registering three goals and nine points. For Nick, three of his five goals this year have come in the last two days.
So what’s the key to Nick’s newfound goal scoring ability, and the line’s success as a whole? Well, Ovechkin has generated the vast majority of the first line’s shots this season. Though they are improving, Johansson and Backstrom had the maddening tendency to pass, pass, pass early in the year. Without Ovi, has Backstrom been forced shoot the puck more, always an important factor in scoring goals? In short, no. When I asked him about it, Backstrom insisted that he wasn’t directing any more pucks toward the net than usual. A little late-night research backs him up. Nick has attempted three shots in each of the two games without Ovechkin, roughly in line with his normal pace. So, some nice shots and a bit of luck.
“Yeah, that’s just a coincidence,” Backstrom said with some sass.
Nevertheless, the temporary first line has been impressive. Erat and Fehr deserve credit for holding their own in a new and challenging position, each playing on their third different line this year. Fehr, especially, made a large jump, playing two total polar opposite roles in one week. Monday in Vancouver, he played 12 minutes as the gritty fourth line center. Saturday, he played almost twenty minutes as the first line right wing.
“I’m playing wing, it’s a little bit easier,” Fehr told me of the change. “My entire career I’ve been a right winger up until this season. I know where I need to be and what I need to do. I feel very comfortable there on the wing.”
“One thing about a center is you don’t have a set spot to be, you gotta keep your head on a swivel in the defense,” he added. “As a winger you can see the whole play in front of you.”
Fehr is a talented player, often being called in to fill the role of a top-six power forward when necessary, a job befitting of a former first-round pick. More often, though, forward depth and coaching decisions force him on to lower lines. Bruce Boudreau ended up switching Fehr out between the fourth line and the press box. It became a self-filing prophesy as Fehr wasn’t in a position that allowed him to succeed and move up in the lineup. I feared the same thing might be happening under Adam Oates, who has a steadfast commitment to have Brooks Laich on the second line, though Fehr’s jump to the top trio and first power play unit show that Oates understands Fehr’s skill set.
“We have a lot of talented players and you got to spread the ice time out to everybody,” Fehr said diplomatically. “You just gotta do your best with the position you’re given. When you’re called upon, you step up.”
The same goes for Erat. He’s not made to play alongside Tom Wilson and assorted players making the NHL minimum. Eventually, after the Caps started so poorly at even strength, he moved up to the second line — where he was great — and now the first. Meanwhile Laich, the guy who prevented him from moving up for so long, has struggled this year, along with fellow top-sixer Troy Brouwer.
All this will get blown up once Alex Ovechkin (likely) returns to the lineup on Tuesday. We’ll live, but I think Oates should use these an excuse to get Erat and Fehr into the top-six.
“Guys get minutes they wouldn’t normally have got” Oates said, not tipping his hand at next week’s lineup. “It gives guys an opportunity to prove that they can play.”