Washington Capitals

For the Washington Capitals, the First Line is Key

For the Washington Capitals, the First Line is Key
Spenser Smallwood

For the last ten years, Alexander Ovechkin has been the most important player on the Washington Capitals pretty much each and every year. Some might say that this year that honor would go to goaltender Braden Holtby, and they could be right, but the key to the Capitals success this year is still Ovechkin and the rest of the first line of the Capitals, and they have performed well.

First Line Shutdown Line

A line with goal-scoring dynamo Ovechkin, assist maestro Nicklas Backstrom, and a do-it-all TJ Oshie does not appear to be a shutdown line, but head coach Barry Trotz has not only used them that way, they have excelled at it. In years past, Ovechkin and the Capitals first line has always played against the opposing team’s first defensive pairing. This rarely slowed down the Capitals superstar and allowed for other lines to play against softer defensive pairs, a win-win. This year, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Oshie trio has added the other teams’ top offensive line to their docket as well.

Backstrom has played the toughest minutes of any Capitals’ forward with an opponents’ goals for percentage at 50.7 at even strength. Oshie and Ovechkin are right behind him at 50.7 and 50.4 respectively. They have also started in the defensive zone and neutral zone, not only far more than their teammates, but also far more than any other time in their careers.

Year Nicklas Backstrom OZS% Alex Ovechkin OZS%
2015-16 28.39% 29.06%
2014-15 35.83% 37.08%
2013-14 38.77% 40.43%
2012-13 32.23% 37.25%


GF% can be a fickle stat, but the eye test and TOI charts tell the same story. During the most recent game against the Kings at home, the first line matched up against the top line of the Los Angeles Kings, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Milan Lucic, most frequently. In the previous game Saturday at the Dallas Stars, Ovechkin and company played the majority of their 5 on 5 minutes against the Stars top forwards, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Eaves.

How is the First Line Handling Those Minutes

With the first line matched up against the top competition more often in the defensive zone, it would be completely understandable to see a drop in their stats. But that really isn’t happening. Sure Ovechkin’s shot attempt percentage has taken a small dip almost completely attributable to a rise in shot attempts against, but he and the rest of the first line are still over 50%, which is just fine when considering their increase in defensive situations.

They really shine when looking at the things that matter, goals. Barry Trotz has not stopped campaigning for a Selke for Backstrom and based on his goals against statistics, he shouldn’t. Backstrom has been on the ice for only 16 goals against at even strength for a 1.28 GA/60. Of the forwards on the list with fewer goals against per sixty minutes, only Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri of the New Jersey Devils play against tougher competition and have a higher percentage of defensive starts. Of the forwards higher on the list only three have an on ice goals for total (GF) above 20, Palmieri, James Neal, and Joe Thornton. Palmieri has only 22 GF, and Joe Thornton and James Neal start much more frequently in the offensive zone (39% for Neal & 36% for Thornton). Backstrom’s GF sits at 34. That is an almost mind-boggling 68% GF%, all while starting more frequently in the defensive zone against other teams’ top players.

Why Does This Matter

If the Washington Capitals first line can go out against the top competition of the opponent night in and night out and outscore them (especially at the rate that they have been), the Capitals will be a tough out for anyone. In actuality, if they can just break even against the other teams’ first line, the Capitals will be hard to play against.

Their ability to match-up with top lines creates a domino effect down the Capitals lineup. A second line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Justin Williams is free to terrorize the second best, a proposition that is favorable in most match-ups. It has allowed the Capitals third line to focus offensively with a more offensive center like Marcus Johansson instead of concentrating primarily on defense against teams’ third pairing. A fourth line with Mike Richards, Jay Beagle (eventually), and Brooks Laich may be one of the best in the league.

One Last Thing

I want to comment generally on the overpassing and lack of elite shot attempt differential numbers.

Read: Caps Offense Looks Like the Soviets

The Capitals do not have a system conducive to the generation of a high shot attempt differential. In the offensive zone, they move the puck. They use all five players on the ice to create mismatches to try to exploit the center of the ice. They may overpass, but that is because they look for a better shot. A shot blocked or one from the outside may get a team a tick in the Corsi box, but the Capitals seem to believe that holding onto the puck to get a better shot is usually the better option, and it is hard to argue with their success. In the defensive zone, they use players to block access to the center of the ice. They sacrifice shots from the outside to protect from high scoring chance opportunities. That they are even in the top ten in score adjusted shot attempt differential is a testament to how good this team is.

All stats compiled from Puckalytics.com.

Washington Capitals
Spenser Smallwood

Spenser grew up in the Washington D.C. area. He covers the Washington Capitals for Along the Boards. Spenser played locally around DC, in high school, and in college.

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