Back in mid-November, when he was in the midst of sitting out 18 straight games as a healthy scratch, Capitals center Jay Beagle would poke his head into Adam Oates’ office and make the same request over and over.
“What do I need to do to get in the lineup, coach?”
It went on for the better part of five weeks.
“He and I have had a lot of heart-to-hearts about it,” Oates said. “[I told him] to keep improving his game. He has.”
Enough to go from the scratch sheet to the Caps' top-line center between Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.
With Mikhail Grabovski and Brooks Laich on the injured list and the top line of Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin allowing far more even-strength goals than they were scoring, Oates decided to replace Backstrom with Beagle midway through the Caps’ 2-0 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh on March 11.
Oates liked what he saw, but went back to Johansson, Backstrom and Ovechkin in the next two games. But when that top trio was on the ice for back-to-back goals against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 16, Oates again elevated Beagle to the top line and has kept him there ever since.
The Caps’ top line has not produced an even-strength goal in two full games together, but they have not allowed one and they’ll be back together again in San Jose tonight against the Sharks.
“Hockey gets tougher sledding as you get toward the playoffs,” Oates explained, “and his ability to skate 200 feet and wear people out is very valuable.”
As a result, Beagle’s ice time, which was at 7:31 in the Caps’ loss to the Penguins on March 10, climbed to 14:38 in Thursday night’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Kings. And while Beagle’s promotion to the top line may only last until Grabovski returns from an ankle injury – after all, he has just two goals in 51 games this season – his contributions have not gone unnoticed in the Caps’ locker room.
“He means more than you guys know, for sure,” Caps defenseman John Carlson said. “He does everything for us. He’s skilled enough to play on the power play if a spot was open. He’s obviously a great faceoff guy [team-leading 54.4 percent], dynamite in the D zone, and he blocks a lot of shots  and does everything on the PK, too.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a guy around the league that works harder than him.”
Here’s a look at the line combinations and defense pairings the Caps plan on using tonight against the Sharks when they look for their first victory in San Jose since Oct. 30, 1993.
Marcus Johansson - Jay Beagle – Alex Ovechkin
Evgeny Kuznetsov - Nicklas Backstrom - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Eric Fehr – Joel Ward
Dustin Penner – Chris Brown – Tom Wilson
Karl Alzner – John Carlson
Jack Hillen – Mike Green
Dmitry Orlov – Patrick Wey
Jaroslav Halak [starter] – Braden Holtby