Capitals Third Line Waiting to Break Out

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Posted October 19, 2016

(Caps Outsider)

Now that the Capitals’ power play seems to be back on track, it is time to nitpick on another issue. Less than a week into the Capitals 2016-17 campaign, the most interesting story line is that in each of the team’s three games, a different player has scored two goals.

On Thursday night it was Andre Burakovsky who single-handedly carried the Capitals into overtime to earn their first point of the season. On Saturday, it was Daniel Winnik who surprised just about everyone by leading the Capitals to their first victory of the season with another two-goal effort. And most recently, T.J. Oshie buried two pucks in a dominating effort against the Colorado Avalanche.

Most notably, in each game, the Capitals have received the bulk of their production from a different line. After seeing minuscule ice time in the first game of the season, the fourth line of Winnik, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson put together an excellent effort in game two. While the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Oshie struggled in that same game, they rebounded with authority on Tuesday.

The “Tre-Kronor” line of Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson has been stellar in every game. An argument could be made that that group of forwards is the first line based on performance so far.

So where is the third line?

So far, only five forwards on the Capitals haven’t recorded a point. One is Tom Wilson, but the other four have been designated third-liners. Newcomer Lars Eller and veteran Justin Williams are the mainstays on that line, while Brett Connolly rotated in on Tuesday in favor of rookie Zach Sanford. Sanford made the roster out of training camp following a strong preseason.

That isn’t to say that the line as a whole has been invisible. Sanford didn’t generate too much offense on his own in his first stint as a professional, but Eller and Williams have both been, at the very least, even in terms of possession at five-on-five. Connolly was also a positive possession player in his first action last night. In fact, every single Capitals forward is above 50% CF through three games.

Individually, the third-liners have been okay. Connolly recorded four shots on goal in his first game in 11 minutes and 39 seconds of ice time, and Eller has five shots on goal in three games. Williams, like Sanford, has just one shot on goal so far this season, however.

When the other three lines have contributed in big ways, it is easier to point out that this line is struggling. It isn’t completely unfounded in the grand scheme of things, however. Williams was a 20-goal scorer last year, and while he isn’t on a line with Kuznetsov anymore, you would really hope that a veteran of his abilities would have more than one single shot in three games.

Marcus Johansson was slated to be the goal-scorer on the Caps' third line. (Caps Outsider)

Marcus Johansson was slated to be the goal-scorer on the Caps’ third line. (Caps Outsider)

The biggest problem that jumps out is that there is no true trigger-man on the third line. Before Sanford made the team, it was theorized that Johansson would be the shooter on that line. However, the Swede was moved up in the lineup prior to game one. Williams isn’t your average sniper, especially at 35 years of age. Eller wasn’t brought in to fill that role either, so that leaves Connolly or Sanford.

Sanford most likely won’t be the answer here either – at least not yet – so that leaves Connolly. The former sixth overall pick was once a highly-touted sniper, but has never lived up to expectations as a pro. He has just 27 goals in 211 career games between Tampa Bay, Boston and now Washington.

If Connolly plays the way he did last night consistently, there is a good chance that he will become a solid contributor for the Capitals. The biggest challenge for him, and this line, will be finishing plays and converting on their opportunities.

Tom Wilson will likely get his shot up there if that line stays off of the score sheet long-term. At worst, it settles as a very strong defensive line that can chip in offensively on occasion.

Or, if recent history repeats itself, one of the three is destined to pot two goals on Thursday in Sunrise, rendering most of this article useless.

(All statistics via Natural Stattrick)