As the Washington Capitals constructed a brand new third line this summer, they wanted that forward trio to continue to be reliable defensively, but they also wanted more point production for the offensive depth in the lineup that had eluded them last postseason.
The Capitals started by trading for Lars Eller to be the third-line center. They then signed winger Brett Connolly on the first day of free agency, that inexpensive under-the-radar signing having the potential to pay dividends if Connolly could flash the offensive upside that made him a top-10 draft pick in 2010. Later in July, Washington signed Zach Sanford after two years at Boston College, adding a promising rookie to the roster.
Those three new additions, the only new faces on the team this season, have comprised the new third line along with right wing Justin Williams, the steadying, veteran presence there. Five games in, that trio is starting to provide the production the Capitals hoped to see, scoring in a second straight game as Eller notched his first goal as a member of the Capitals.
Washington suffered its first regulation loss to the Rangers on Saturday night, but that the third line took another step forward with Eller’s goal and quality scoring chances for Williams and Sanford is an encouraging sign for the Capitals’ long-term goal of a deep playoff run.
“I think the five-on-five game has gotten better, yeah,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I think it starts with, I think, [Williams], who is a real good leader. I think he drives that line, he gets them going. You find people at the net, and he’s always the one that’s there. I think hopefully getting Eller’s first goal with us will help him. I know the guys were cheering when Zach had a real good look; if he had scored our bench would have exploded for him. For a young guy he’s, he’s quite popular with the group, I think, because he’s very respectful and very mature for his age.”
After the line had a sluggish start to the season, not scoring a point in the first three games, Williams scored a goal against the Florida Panthers on Thursday night, stuffing in a feed from defenseman Nate Schmidt in front of the net. Williams said that goal was a culmination of the line playing progressively better with each game as its members got more comfortable with each other.
Some of that chemistry could’ve been strained by Trotz rotating the left wing, as Sanford played in the first two games and then Connolly played in the two games after that. Sanford was back in against the Rangers on Saturday, and he looked his most comfortable, more aggressive in shooting and fighting for space in front of the net. Trotz has indicated that through the first 10 games of the season, he’ll continue to alternate playing Sanford and Connolly as he identifies roles for both of them.
“I thought he was good,” Trotz said of Sanford. “He kept a lot of plays alive. I thought he was he was in good position all night. He made a real good play defensively, I think, when Brooks [Orpik] — the puck jumped over Brooks’ stick there. He got back and broke up that play a little bit. . . . He looked comfortable, he looks like he’s adjusting well, so I’ve got lots of confidence in him.”
The same could be said for the third line, which is looking more comfortable and confident with each game.
“I liked a lot of things about our game today,” Eller said after the Rangers game. “I think we’ve been getting better every day. The last game in Florida was probably the best we’ve played so far, and today was also very good in a lot of ways. We’re creating lots of scoring chances and getting lots of offensive zone time, so there’s definitely things I liked.”