The last time Caps coach Adam Oates made significant changes to his lineup and his forward lines, the Caps had just come off consecutive losses in Calgary and Vancouver in late October, and they had lost captain Alex Ovechkin for a couple of games because of an upper body injury sustained in the loss to the Canucks.
In the first game after Oates’ changes, Washington rolled to a 7-0 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia. That started a 7-1-1 stretch for the Capitals to start November.
When Washington rolled into Toronto in the wee hours of Saturday morning, it did so lugging a two-game losing streak. The Caps dropped the last two games of a three-game homestand, falling 4-0 to the Penguins on Wednesday and 3-2 to the Canadiens on Friday night.
Playing the second of back-to-back games on Saturday night against the Maple Leafs in Toronto, Oates has elected to juggle two of his four forward lines.
Martin Erat will be a healthy scratch tonight and Eric Fehr draws back into the lineup after sitting out for the last three weeks.
Oates has been adamant about his unwillingness to have a right-handed shot play on the left side, and vice versa. Last season, Fehr was the only Washington forward to play on his off wing at any point and he will do so again tonight. A right wing by trade, Fehr will man the left side of a line with Mikhail Grabovski in the middle and Troy Brouwer on the right.
“I don’t mind playing the left wing.,” says Fehr. “I like playing the wing a little bit better than center. I find you get a little bit more involved in the offensive zone, you can get in and really force the other team’s defense to make plays. That’s the part of the game I feel I’m strong at. I’m glad to be on the wing today and hopefully I can make a quick adjustment to the left side. It’s not really the biggest adjustment to make since I haven’t been playing right wing that much either. Right or left, it doesn’t matter.”
Brooks Laich slides into to the middle of Grabovski’s old slot, between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
“Chemistry is one thing,” says Oates, when asked of his thought process for making the adjustments. “It was time for Fehrsie to get a game. Marty has been fighting it a little bit in my mind. And sometimes when you sit up top you get a fresh perspective. It’s not permanent; just trying to shake it up a little.”
A winger throughout his lengthy NHL career, Erat played center against the Canadiens on Friday night, and even though Oates and linemates Brouwer and Laich believed the veteran acquitted himself well in that new role, he will be a healthy scratch tonight for the first time since he joined the Caps in an April 3 trade with the Nashville Predators.
Oates says Erat’s performance against the Habs wasn’t a factor in the decision.
“No, not so much last night,” says Oates. “It’s probably been building a little bit. I put him in a foreign position last night and he actually played okay.”
Fehr stepped in and played the right side of Washington’s top line during Ovechkin’s two-game absence, playing with Erat and Nicklas Backstrom. Fehr had three assists in those two games, and played just under 20 minutes both nights. But he’s been a victim of the Caps’ depth on the right side since, sitting out nine straight games.
“I’ve just got to be focused on the way I can play and try to make sure I am strong defensively and in the right positioning,” says Fehr, “just really move my feet and try to get involved in the play as much as I can.”
Having sat out nine straight games, it can be difficult not to put pressure on yourself to perform well.
“I’m not too worried about that right now, to be honest,” states Fehr. “I’m more worried about the speed of play. Obviously you can practice as hard as you want and you’re not going to get yourself in a game situation. I have to make sure I don’t catch myself watching the game and try to make plays as quickly as I can.”
With tonight’s game, Fehr will have spent time playing on all four of Washington’s forward lines this season, and he will have played all three forwards positions as well.
“It’s been interesting,” he says. “You don’t know what to expect when you come to the rink. You don’t know who you’re playing with or what’s going to happen. It’s definitely been a bit of a change for me. I just have to really focus on every game individually; before the game when you’re doing your pre-game prep, really focus on what you can do that night and visualize yourself in that position so you don’t catch yourself floating all over the ice.”
As reluctant as Oates is to have a righty playing on the left side, he didn’t have to do so. He could have slotted Fehr in the middle of the line with Chimera and Ward; that trio played together for the first seven games of the season.
“I did [think about it],” says Oates, “and it might still happen at some point in the game. But [Fehr] hasn’t played in a while. I know he knows what to do over there, so he’ll be okay.”
Fehr skated this morning in Toronto, taking the ice with Erat, Jay Beagle, Steve Oleksy – all of whom will be healthy scratches tonight – and tonight’s starting goaltender for the Caps, Braden Holtby.
After he left the ice, Fehr spent some time going over video with Caps assistant coach Calle Johansson.
“That was more the penalty kill stuff,” says Fehr of his video work with Johansson, “trying to get back in on specialty teams and just looking at the stuff that Toronto is going to be doing tonight and what I need to do to be ready for it.”
Washington’s other two forward lines remain unchanged; Marcus Johansson and Ovechkin will flank Backstrom and Aaron Volpatti and Toronto native Tom Wilson will ride alongside Michael Latta.