Since he arrived in Washington to take over as head coach, Dale Hunter has preached defense. Creating defensive stability and structure is the foundation that Hunter has sought to build his system upon, with the belief that once the Capitals can protect their own zone, success in the offensive zone will follow.
Hunter brought in his former teammate Jim Johnson to help institute an aggressive, pressure-based defense that relies on the ability of each player to mark an opposing man.
• Tonight’s game preview: Hunter’s Capitals face first test in Penguins
“The onus is on that individual player to win their battle every time,” Karl Alzner said. “If you don’t win your battle and you get beat then we’re going to have an issue and you hope someone’s going to bail you out -- your goalie or a weak side forward -- but it’s good this way, it keeps everybody extremely honest. You’ve got to make sure you’re doing your job and winning your job our it’s not going to work.”
Capitals defensemen described the system as something of a switch to a more man-on-man approach, but with enough of a space cushion to limit an opponent’s options not be so close that they are then beat easily by someone.
“I think we’re really bringing our forwards back and trying to always be a stick length away from the guy so we’re not giving them that time to make a play,” John Erskine said. “I think if we get on the same page with that it will bring our goals against down quite a bit.”
The hitch with this system is that it can be a more draining style of play to try to maintain over the course of a game and a season.
“It’s a little more demanding physically,” Dennis Wideman said. “To be one-on-one so it tightens up the D-zone a little bit and hopefully we can get the puck out a little quicker.”
Said Alzner: “It’s more tiring…depending on who you’re checking. It could be the fastest guy, wheeling around like Martin St. Louis and it’s tough to follow him. It’s difficult but at the same time it denies a lot of play making ability for the other team.”
The 1-2-2 trap the Capitals utilized at times against St. Louis is likely also going to be a regular feature under Hunter, according to players. By making sure players are back in defensively-sound position, Washington should prevent the plethora of odd-man rushes that have plagued its game and become an opportunistic team off the transition itself.
Cutting down on those breaks for opponents is something that allows the Capitals to build up confidence and regain control in their end.
“In Toronto the puck would go up the boards, I’d try to step up and all they have to do is chip off the boards and if they have a step on our forwards it’s a 2-on-1 like that and creates a scoring chance,” Erskine said. “By just accepting the rush we take that away; that’s a good feeling.”
Washington’s defense has plenty of blueliners who like to jump up and get involved in the play offensively, though. Players like Mike Green, John Carlson, Wideman and Dmitry Orlov. So how does this impact them?
“They’ve got to read the rush,” Hunter said. “I don’t hold D back. They’ve got to read the rush and a forward will cover for them, but they just read it and if it’s the right time, they go.”
There is pressure for the players – defensemen and forwards – to ensure that they make the correct play when it comes to the proper defensive approach. Whether it’s jumping up in the play, trying to get the puck out of the zone or deciding when to take a risk.
“If we’re going to err on a side, I think he wants us to stay on the side of caution, maybe live to fight another time and get the puck out,” Mike Knuble said after the 2-1 loss to St. Louis on Tuesday. “Don’t step up and take a chance. If you do, don’t be 50/50 or even be 80/20, if you’re stepping up you’d better be one hundred percent you’ll get that puck and you better get it, or don’t come back to the bench.”
After spending the bulk of the past four seasons becoming identified as an offensive juggernaut, the Capitals will undoubtedly take time to adjust to Hunter’s defensive-first approach. But when asked if it’s tough to convince players that it can be successful, and fun, to play the way he wants, Hunter said any system that gives the better chance to win should be supported.
“Everybody wants to score goals, everybody does,” Hunter said before drawing on an example of why his system was suited to a game like his debut against St. Louis. “There was no room in the neutral zone; [the Blues] had four guys in there, so it’s a cat and mouse game out there where you can’t just go through it and turn pucks over. Instead of having a chance to win, you’re down 6-1. You’ve got to stick to the system.”