The Capitals recent resurgence and climb up the Eastern Conference standings has taken a lot of heat off of head coach Bruce Boudreau, a far cry from two months ago when many were questioning whether Boudreau would survive through the end of the season. The recent nine-game win streak has no doubt quieted some of Boudreau’s critics, but not all. Regardless of how the regular season turns out, there will be a large chunk of fans indifferent to the Caps 82-game performance and only focused on the team’s post-season outcome. That’s to be expected. After all, it’s all about the playoffs.
But to gloss over what Boudreau has done this year is to miss a significant coaching achievement. In merely half-a-season Boudreau has transformed the Caps from a one-dimensional, run-n-gun style to a team that can employ multiple systems based on the situation and score. If a team traps in the neutral zone, the Caps dump-and-chase; if a team clogs the middle of the offensive zone and forces the Caps to the perimeter, the Caps can effectively cycle and create scoring chances; if the Caps have a lead, they can play their own version of the trap; and if an opponent is gutsy enough to play wide-open, run-n-gun hockey, the Caps will most certainly oblige.
It’s that last point that’s important.
There is a misperception out there that Boudreau voluntarily scrapped a successful run-n-gun system and overreacted to a poor stretch by installing a more defensive-oriented system. That’s not accurate. Boudreau didn’t move to this more defensive-oriented system because he wanted to, he moved to it because he had to. The framework on how to beat the run-n-gun Caps was out, and that’s to trap them, turn center ice into mud and - when the Caps gain the offensive zone - force them to the perimeter. Played properly, the trap is the run-n-gun’s kryptonite. Some teams - specifically Atlanta and Boston - used this approach successfully early in the year. About a quarter of the way into the season most teams followed suit.
You simply cannot force the Caps run-n-gun style on a disciplined trapping team. The trap takes away the strengths of the run-n-gun, namely the ability to gain speed through the neutral zone and use of the stretch pass to place pressure on the opponent’s defensemen. Thankfully, Boudreau recognized this and adjusted his systems accordingly. If opponents won’t let the Caps play run-n-gun, they will beat you in other ways.
Since Feb. 1, I’ve counted four out of 21 games where opponents have allowed the Caps to play wide-open, chance-for-chance hockey. All four were Caps victories (Ducks, Islanders, Oilers and Blackhawks). Why only four? Because choosing to run-n-gun against the Caps is a foolish venture, and it’s why you won’t see any early-round playoff opponents play that style. What you will see - and what you’ve seen - is the trap. So while the Caps 4-3 OT victory over Chicago Sunday was aesthetically pleasing, don’t get used to it. The Blackhawks were gutsy enough to play the Caps straight up - and, like most others that try this strategy, lost. Tuesday’s dominating road win over a disciplined Montreal squad and Wednesday’s impressive showing (in spite of a depleted and fatigued lineup) against a strong puck possession team like Detroit were much more indicative of what the Caps will face in the spring than Sunday’s Blackhawks game.
Still, critics longing for last year’s dominance will say that scoring is down from last year. Yes, scoring is down but the franchise may never match last year’s 3.88 goals per game pace.
Nonetheless, the Caps have generated more than enough scoring chances to consistently win games - they just haven’t finished their chances. That’s not on Boudreau or his system changes; it’s solely on the players to bury the ample chances that they have created.
I would argue that this strategic shift in systems is the most important improvement the Caps have made this season. It’s an acknowledgement that the Caps run-n-gun style was too one-dimensional and that it could be stopped by a smart, disciplined trap. Unlike last April, the Caps now have an answer to it. Regardless of the fact they’re nowhere near last year’s 121-point pace, they are much better suited for the playoffs this year than they were last year.
So if you want to criticize Boudreau, do it because he doesn’t hold star players accountable like he does his role players, or because of the team’s season-long power play woes. But don’t go after him for implementing new systems and teaching the Caps to “play right.” The man deserves credit and recognition for adjusting the Caps style of play. If there is a parade down Pennsylvania Ave this June it’s going to be easy to say that the Caps star players stepped up to carry the team or that George McPhee’s deadline additions put them over the hump. But if you ask me, Boudreau’s in-season changes will have been the most important catalyst for a successful spring.