Nic Dowd returns to Caps’ fourth line

When Spencer Carbery sketched out his vision of the Washington Capitals’ lineup — way back in the summer, long before his new team hit the ice — he had a clear starting point for the fourth line: Beck Malenstyn, Nic Dowd and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.

Dowd had been locked in as Washington’s fourth-line center for five years, so any uncertainty was focused on who would play on his wings. Malenstyn got a taste of the NHL over the past few years; after he won the Calder Cup with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears in June, he looked ready for a full-time role. Last year, Washington added Aube-Kubel off waivers from Toronto, Carbery’s previous organization, and the coach likes his speed and skating skills.

It didn’t take long for Carbery to deviate from his plan. Aube-Kubel had an unimpressive training camp and didn’t make the opening night roster; he cleared waivers and was sent to Hershey. Dowd and Malenstyn played together for the first two games, but then Dowd missed the next nine with an upper-body injury.

Aube-Kubel spent more than a month in the AHL before being recalled Friday. A roster spot opened when winger Anthony Mantha was placed on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Coincidentally, Dowd was ready to return to the lineup Friday at the New Jersey Devils, so for the first time this season, the fourth line Carbery envisioned months ago appeared on his lineup card.

The results were immediate. Aube-Kubel scored the game’s first goal, and just 15 seconds later he set up Malenstyn for another. Dowd went 12 for 19 in the faceoff circle while taking the majority of Washington’s defensive-zone draws and added a team-high four hits in a 4-2 win.

“[For] the first time this year, we had sort of our natural quote-unquote ‘fourth line,’ ” Carbery said. “… Credit to them. Dowder comes in — I thought he was excellent. He stabilizes that. You can deploy him in any situation. And then they chip in offensively as well, which they have the ability to do while not sacrificing at the other end.”

In Dowd’s absence, the fourth line became a landing spot for the forwards who didn’t have a dedicated role higher in the lineup. The hodgepodge line was ineffective and didn’t spend much time on the ice.

Dowd’s return brought balance to the Capitals’ lineup. His line skated roughly 10 minutes at even strength against New Jersey — as he and Malenstyn each logged about four minutes on the penalty kill — and then surged to more than 15 minutes against the New York Islanders in the second leg of a back-to-back. After his linemates scored Friday, Dowd chipped in a goal during Saturday’s 4-1 win, with another assist going to Aube-Kubel.

The fourth line’s identity, predicated on defensive reliability and speed, was on display in both games — despite Dowd’s quips that his linemates were carrying the load for him.

“Two of the three were buzzing,” Dowd said with a self-deprecating smile. “I was just trying to get up the ice and then get off the ice. But I think Kube and Mally bring a lot of different skill sets to the table. Both of them are extremely fast players, and they play fast. I think you can see that on both of their goals, and then even just getting up the ice and putting pressure on [opposing defensemen], causing turnovers. That’s when we get to play in the [offensive] zone. It’s a simple game, but you can’t do it without those two having the speed.”

The number of faceoffs a player takes in a particular zone can be misleading because the majority of shifts begin on the fly, but there’s a reason Dowd has taken 35 defensive-zone draws this year — against just eight in the neutral zone and three in the offensive zone. Unlike the fill-in fourth-line centers Carbery turned to while Dowd was injured, Dowd and his linemates can be trusted with heavy usage defensively, and the speed of Malenstyn and Aube-Kubel helps them turn those defensive-zone starts into offensive pressure.

They probably won’t continue to score as regularly as they did during last week’s back-to-back, but the fourth-liners’ performance emphasized Dowd’s importance to his line and to Washington as a whole.

“When you can be very, very smart, reliable, strong in your own end, play against the best players in the league, but then also you can apply pressure up ice with your skating and your puck pressure and your forecheck pressure, now you’ve got a line that is so valuable defensively — but also can put the opposition in uncomfortable spots with how well they skate and how well they play north,” Carbery said. “I feel like that’s sort of what we envisioned.”

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