TORONTO - Was Washington Capitals centre Jay Beagle surprised when he found out last week that he'd be playing on a line with Alex Ovechkin, the team's resident superstar?
"Um, yeah, I was a little bit," Beagle, who scored just five goals in 53 games last season, admitted. "Didn't really ever expect to play with Ovie, but I'm enjoying it."
Joey Crabb, the third member of the line, was also taken aback.
"A little surprised, but, I mean, I'm just going to try and play my game," said Crabb, who signed with Washington in the off-season. "I'm not going to try and think about it too much and try and do too many backdoor plays although it'd be nice if I do. I'm going to get in on the forecheck and work hard and try and create chances that way."
So why did rookie head coach Adam Oates decide to create such an oddly-matched trio, which will start their fourth game together on Thursday in Toronto?
"I like having North-South guys with [Ovechkin]," Oates told reporters in Washington earlier in the week. "Maybe sometimes with the other guys they might try and get too creative. And at the time when I did it, we needed creativity. We needed something. We needed a spark. We need a goal, as opposed to just maybe being more relentless as a team going north. And I think playing with Joey and Beags, they're going to go north more."
On Thursday, Oates expanded a bit on his rationale.
"We spent a lot of time talking about the conditioning of the guys coming off the lockout and given just the balance of our team we can give Ovie some looks with two guys, who for 60 minutes can carry the pace a little bit and help him out."
'HE'S OBVIOUSLY THE GOAL-SCORER ON THE LINE'
Ovechkin would seem to be a better fit with old running mate Nicklas Backstrom, who will start Thursday's game against the Maple Leafs between Wojtek Wolski and Troy Brouwer. The Russian sniper, who has just one goal and one assist through six games this season, would also likely be more at home playing with Mike Ribeiro, who is currently centreing Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.
"Actually, it's not tough," Ovechkin said when asked about playing with Beagle and Crabb, who are known more for their grit. "They're maybe not skilled guys like Backy or Ribs, but they have speed and are not afraid to go and battle and, for me, it's a challenge and for them too."
"Me and Crabb are just trying to open up some more space for him and just try and find him when we can get him the puck and, you know, he's obviously the goal-scorer on the line," Beagle said with a chuckle.
But there hasn't been much to laugh about in Washington early this season. They have stumbled out of the gate winning just one of six games while trying to adjust to Oates' system. The club appeared to get on track in Ottawa on Tuesday before blowing a lead and losing to the Senators.
"System is good for us," Ovechkin said. "It's working. We control the puck most of the time ... we get the lead, we get one goal and after that we just stop playing and play old system."
'I HAVE TO BE BETTER'
Ovechkin's lack of scoring has been a focal point with owner Ted Leonsis calling for the captain to step up during a radio interview on Wednesday. And Ovechkin agrees with the man who signs his cheques.
"Well, of course, two points [is] not good enough for me," he said. "It's my bad. I didn't score the goals and make the plays. I have to be better."
A game against the Leafs may be just what the doctor ordered for the snake bitten star. Ovechkin has had a lot of success against them in his career tallying 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) in 27 career games against Toronto. In 14 of those 27 games, Ovechkin has recorded two or more points. He has at least one point in all but five of his games against the Leafs.
And while some of his teammates suggest the floodgates will open once Ovechkin knocks a few pucks in, Oates believes the formerly prolific point producer needs to adjust his game and perhaps add a few tricks to his repertoire.
"We've talked about that," said Oates. "It's a work in progress and he's a marked man in this league and he has to keep improving his own game ... and at the same time do it with the team."
Ovechkin has seen his point totals decline significantly in each of the last three seasons (109 to 85 to 65).