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kevin paul dupont | on hockey

Shadowing assignment disappearing from the game

Teams used to assign a player to shadow elite scorers like the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin.
Teams used to assign a player to shadow elite scorers like the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin.(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Bruins won’t face more firepower in back-to-back games this season than in these 48 hours, with the Capitals here at the Garden Thursday night, followed by the Black and Gold’s visit on Saturday to Toronto.

The Capitals brought the dynamic tandem of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin to Causeway, and the Maple Leafs have sublime centers Auston Matthews and John Tavares as their 1-2 pivots. The Capitals opened with Evgeny Kuznetsov centering the Ovechkin line (with Tom Wilson) and Backstrom between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie.

When it was over Thursday night, Ovechkin (2) and Backstrom (1) collected three goals in the defending Cup champs’ 4-2 win. The Bruins limited their chances, holding the Capitals to 21 shots, but as if often the case, the Capitals’ best bandits found the bank and stole the cash.

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On Saturday, Matthews will be flanked by Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, while Tavares is expected to ride with Zach Hyman and the slippery, dazzling Mitch Marner (No. 1 in Leafs scoring with 55 points).

In days of yore — hold your Google searches, kids, the train down memory lane is now leaving — the Bruins sometimes opted for the shadow approach to cover such elite scoring strength. Shadows were once the infield shift of hockey, an exaggerated defensive tactic used to take away the bat from the other team’s power hitters.

Two examples:

■  Don Cherry all but had Don Marcotte waiting outside the Montreal Forum to get on Guy Lafleur’s tail in the ’70s. Wherever Flower went, Marcotte was harder to shake than paparazzi at a Kardashian convention.

■  The Oilers were fresh out of the WHA incubator when Gerry Cheevers became the Boston coach in 1980, and he routinely assigned pesky center Steve Kasper to ride the backside of Wayne Gretzky. One night in Edmonton, the dogged Kasper chased the Great One back to the bench and then stood at the boards for an extra 2-3 seconds, taunting Gretzky to jump back over the boards. No. 99 had eluded some of Kasper’s coverage by making quick changes, popping back on the ice within seconds after Kasper returned to the Boston bench.

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Though it has virtually gone the way of the stone wheel and abacus, Boston captain Zdeno Chara remains a big fan of the shadow strategy. In his day with the Senators, recalled Big Z, Bruins coach Mike Sullivan assigned P.J. Axelsson the job of shadowing Senators center Daniel Alfredsson — Team Sweden buddies in international play.

“Great strategy,” Chara said recently when mulling the tactic. “I would do it. Wouldn’t you?”

The ploy, he recalled, irritated the typically unflappable Alfredsson.

“He was snapping at Axelsson,” noted Chara. “Swede on Swede, he was snapping, like, ‘What are you doing?!’ And Axelsson was saying, ‘I’ve got to skate with you, Coach told me.’ He didn’t care, he stayed with him. And Alfie was such a good playmaker, but . . . ”

Nonetheless, coaches in 2018-19 prefer to match lines, which often has the two most productive trios out there facing one another when play is five on five. The closest facsimile today would be for a coach to put out his top defensive trio against the opposition’s most prolific line.

Backstrom’s primary duty in the Washington offense is finding Ovechkin. That’s the primary duty of any Capitals center. It’s like saying a dog’s primary duty is to beg for treats.

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Ovie is the game’s biggest, strongest shooter off the wing, and arrived in town Thursday with 637 career goals in 1,045 games.

The problem with assigning one of his forwards to shut down Backstrom, noted Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, is that the Capitals, like most other NHL teams in 2018-19, have such an abundance of firepower. True. But the Habs won the Cup four times, 1976-79, and that didn’t stop Cherry from turning Marcotte into his preferred hunting dog against Lafleur.

“I think they have too much depth,” explained Cassidy, referring specifically to the Capitals. “I think there’s other guys that can hurt you on this team. That’s one of the issues. I think maybe when you get [Connor McDavid in Edmonton] when he was going with [Leon] Draisaitl — putting all their eggs in one basket — then you mull it over.”

But overall, added Cassidy, the game’s overall bent on offense, particularly with better skating defensemen encouraged to jump into the attack, numbered the shadow’s days.

“I don’t know if you can completely shut down a line with one player anymore,” he said. “I think back then then D were more defensive-minded. So it was, OK, we’ll take away the one guy and it’s only the [other two forwards]. Now I think with the two D coming it has become more of a difficult animal.”

If he were to do it, said Cassidy, he’d call upon Sean Kuraly to wear the shadow’s cape.

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“I think he would relish it,” said Cassidy. “He can skate with anybody. Big enough guy. Kind of his role with our team, a checker, so I don’t think you are getting too outside of what you’re asking him to do a lot of nights anyway — minus the puck-possession role, obviously.”

The 6-foot-2-inch Kuraly, 25, played in only his 126th NHL game with the Capitals in town. Had that been the ask, to shut down Backstrom or Ovechkin, Kuraly said he would have embraced it.

“Any time you get a job, I kind of feel like you . . . if it’s a way to help the team, you feel good about accomplishing it,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think you want to do that 82 games a year. I think it might get hard to stay focused. But if one night you get a job to do something like that, I think you could take pride in it. Especially if it’s going to be a great player you’re up against.

“If you get done, and realize they didn’t have a fun night, and they weren’t enjoying themselves and didn’t get anything out of it, then it’s a good night for you. Sure, I think you could get some satisfaction out of that.”

In the 21 games Gretzky faced the Bruins with Kasper in the lineup, the Great One delivered 13 goals and 37 points, but was held to 9-12—21 at even strength. Lifetime, Gretzky averaged 1.92 points per game. The Bruins, with Kasper, trimmed it back to 1.76. No one came up with an effective strategy to keep Gretzky down very long.

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One chilly night in Edmonton, after Kasper had chased Gretzky from one end of Northlands Coliseum to another, Kasper was yet to be seen when the team bus, idling outside the arena, was ready to go back to the hotel.

“Where the hell is Stevie?” said Cheevers, sitting in his customary front row seat on the bus.

“No point in waiting, Cheese,” said a member of the press corps, who in those days were welcome to ride on the team bus to and from practices and games. “I hear he followed Gretz all the way home.”

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont

@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.