We’ve reached the chess match phase of this series, and it’s a testament the depths of both teams that they can trade bottom-six lineup changes involving some of the best forwards in hockey.
The Capitals shocked everyone by moving Alex Ovechkin to the third line for a must-win Game 5, but it worked. (I still maintain it was a panic move, whether it worked or not. But there’s no denying that the Capitals have been winning the third-line battles all series long, and especially because they had the last change at home, putting Ovechkin on that line made for some serious matchup problems for Pittsburgh.) Now the Penguins are countering with a reunion of the HBK line—Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel—that tore up the last postseason.
The three were together at the morning skate, a change from Game 5 in which Bonino centered Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary, while Hagelin and Kessel played with Evgeni Malkin.
“There’s only so much you can take from those lines when you look at them because a lot can change,” Hagelin said. “But if we’re together tonight, I’m definitely going to have a smile on my face.”
The line hasn’t played together much this year, and hasn’t really been an option in the playoffs—Hagelin was out until Game 2 with a lower-body injury, and they were only able to skate a few shifts together in that one before they had to cover for injuries to Sheary and Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins hope to recover some of the HBK magic from 2016, especially that series-clinching overtime win in Game 6 in which the line scored all four of Pittsburgh’s goals.
Mike Sullivan, owning the last change tonight, will get the matchups he wants, and he’s making other major changes. Sheary will slide up to play wing on Crosby’s top line, while rookie Jake Guentzel will shift down to Malkin’s. If these lineup moves seem dramatic, they ought to be: Though the Pens are up 3-2 and have outscored the Caps by three goals this series, Pittsburgh is still being outshot 174-115. The last thing they want is to go back to Washington for Game 7.