The Chess GamePosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Caps coach Dale Hunter formed a new line featuring Brooks Laich flanked by Matt Hendricks on the left and Troy Brouwer on the right. The trio was put together that afternoon to check the Penguins’ potent top line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. That match-up didn’t go as well as Washington hoped that day. Malkin and his mates accounted for all three of Pittsburgh’s even-strength tallies in that game, and they fired a total of 30 shots toward the Washington net, getting 13 of the on goal. The Caps lost 4-3 in overtime. Hunter kept the threesome together for the Caps’ Jan. 24 win over the Bruins, but the boys started to hit their stride after the all-star break. The Laich line started that game and was effective from the start. But more than being an effective checking line, the unit was the Caps’ most consistent offensive threat, forechecking and cycling in the opposition end for most of its shifts. With Alex Ovechkin coming back from a three-game NHL suspension yesterday in Montreal, it was telling that Hunter kept the Laich line together even with two new faces (Keith Aucoin was also recalled from AHL Hershey) in the lineup and the need for some lineup re-jiggering. The Laich line was on the ice when Washington scored the game’s first goal on Saturday in Montreal, a floater of a point shot from defenseman Dennis Wideman that came about as the result of a Laich face-off win in the offensive zone. At that point, Laich and his linemates had been involved in four of Washington’s previous six goals over a span of three games. With that in mind, it was interesting to see Hunter change that combination up going into the game’s third period. Laich and Brouwer were moved onto a line with Ovechkin while Hendricks was slotted in with Ovechkin’s previous linemates, Marcus Johansson and Alexander Semin. “We’re trying to match lines a little bit so combinations change a little bit because of it,” said Hunter after the game, when asked for some insight on the switches. Hendricks scored the game’s second goal 6:11 into the third, playing with Laich and Semin on that particular shift. That same unit was on the ice later in the period when Semin was hooked from behind and awarded a penalty shot. Semin cashed in on that chance and the Caps had all the breathing room they’d need for a 3-0 win. Although Hunter was his usual reticent self when asked for details and insight into the third-period line juggling, Laich was willing to illuminate us. “It was just a match-up thing,” says Laich. “[The Canadiens] were trying to put [David] Desharnais and [Erik] Cole and [Max] Pacioretty out against Ovi, and trying to go fire against fire. “And at that time in a one-goal game, [Hunter] wanted Brouws and I to go with Ovi to be a little more defensive minded, to keep it tight and not go chance-for-chance and try and control the play a little more. And then after that we were able to get two goals and really able to stifle them. That’s what the switch was for.” So there you have it. Some clutch line-maneuvering by Hunter in a tight and important game, and it paid off. Hunter and his staff also deserve some credit for their smooth management of minutes in Saturday’s game. With another big contest looming against the Bruins on home ice in less than 24 hours, the Caps kept all 18 of their skaters to less than 23 minutes. John Carlson’s 22:30 paced all Washington skaters, and that was the lowest ice time figure for any Capital in any single game this season since Wideman logged 22:06 in a Nov. 4 game at Carolina. That game against the Hurricanes was also the first of back-to-backs. Defenseman Jeff Schultz, getting a sweater for consecutive contests for the first time in nearly two months, logged 13:53 as Washington’s sixth defenseman. That figure represents the most ice logged by a No. 6 defenseman (determined by ice time) in a Caps game since assistant coach Jim Johnson joined Hunter behind the Washington bench on Nov. 30.
For most of the games Brooks Laich has missed in his NHL career, it was the Caps’ choice. We’re still not sure if Laich will miss games from the injury suffered in Sunday’s game against Boston or how many he’ll miss if he does, but it certainly won’t be Washington’s choice this time around. Laich