By Reed S. Albers
With the Washington Capitals trailing behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-0 after one period in Sunday afternoon’s matinee tilt, the conversation about the team’s issues fell on the centers.
Band-Aid No. 1 center Marcus Johansson was scratched before the game with an illness and top line mainstay Nicklas Backstrom remains out with concussion-like symptoms suffered from an early January hit by Rene Bourque.
With Penguins star Evgeni Malkin creating plays, making passes and assisting on James Neal’s first goal of the night (and finishing with another assist and the game-winning goal in overtime), the spotlight quickly turned on the Caps lack of depth between the wings.
Without Johansson and Backstrom, the team’s center talent pool appears thin.
Rookie Cody Eakin still needs time to develop in the NHL and Brooks Laich is a No. 3 center who can – at times – serve on the top lines, but is best paired with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera. So the top line center job fell on the shoulders of undersized spark plug Mathieu Perreault, who made the most of his afternoon centering Alex Ovechkin.
Perreault finished with two assists and recovered from a less than impressive first period to turn in one of his best performances on the season. He played a career-high 16:22, but the issue remains: behind Backstrom and Johansson, the Caps’ center corps is painfully weak.
It’s doubtful the team expects No. 85 to be a long-term center fixture on the top line and Johansson should return for Tuesday night’s game against the Boston Bruins, but the team’s needs are clear.
The Caps are in a playoff race and strong center play goes a long way in creating offensive chances and shots, which in turn creates points in the standings.
With Backstrom still out and potentially injury-prone as he returns to the ice (see: Sidney Crosby’s short-lived comeback), the Caps may need to seek help.
Perreault could be serviceable on the second line, but Sunday’s game was his most productive game since the team’s 7-1 win over Detroit on October 22.
Unless Perreault can suddenly become the model of center consistency, Johansson remains the team’s only viable top line center and after that the No. 2 center slot is being filled by one of three fourth line caliber centers.
Backstrom can’t come back soon enough and after that, a little center insurance could go a long way for the Caps.