One-timers: Capitals keeping defensemen involved offensively

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

 

With 48 games in 99 days, there’s not a lot of time to digest what happened in any single contest. So as we churn through this compressed Capitals season, I’ll be rounding up my thoughts and analysis of each game here. If you missed them, check out the game story from the Capitals’ 3-0 win over the Hurricanes and more on Braden Holtby’s shutout that started with a key stop on Alexander Semin.

>> During training camp I wrote about how Coach Adam Oates and the rest of the staff were encouraging all defensemen to get involved offensively and jump up in the rush when the time is right. Tuesday night, that directive paid dividends as two of the three Washington goals came from the blue line.

John Erskine scored on the rush early in the second and John Carlson joined the play for a rebound goal in the third in a game that saw the defenseman do an effective job of helping Washington keep offensive possessions and pressure rolling.

“We’ve been doing a good job of it but our timing just seems to keep getting better and better,” Carlson said. “We’ve established that, I think, now and everyone’s feeling a lot more comfortable.”

Erskine, who was usually never asked to even consider jumping up in the play, likes the added responsibility and said each defenseman is becoming familiar with how he can pitch in to sustain pressure.

“We practice it a lot,” Erskine said, “I think it’s just becoming a habit now.”

Oates has stressed that it’s about allowing the defensemen to make the correct decision, not to send them blindly flying up the ice across the opposing blue line. He wants them moving up and staying involved in the play, to keep those on the ice working together as a five-man unit.

Obviously it depends on how smoothly the Capitals execute their breakouts and what stage the defensemen are in on their shifts, but they have the green light.

“That’s our system. That’s the way it works – if we do it right, they’re going to be jumping in the play all game,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I think that’s just our speed. We’re realizing that we’re a quick team, and you can see that it’s paid off.”

The defensemen’s involvement also gives the forwards additional options to consider, something that playmakers like Nicklas Backstrom can never have enough of.

“It helps a lot. It gives you more options to pass the puck,” Backstrom said. “That’s what you got to do and it helps a lot for us.”

>> At the start of the second period one of those options was Erskine. Backstrom looked back for a trailer when he, Carlson and Eric Fehr were on a 3-on-2 rush up ice and found the grizzled, 6-4, 220-pound Erskine ready to fire away. Erskine blasted a shot through Cam Ward to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead just 31 seconds into the middle stanza.

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“We know he can punch a guy. He can shoot it, too,” Backstrom said with a laugh. “He showed it today.”

It was a solid night for the rugged defenseman, who blocked a couple of big shots, drew a penalty and notched his second goal of the season in 20:34 of ice time against the Hurricanes just a day after he inked a two-year, $3.925 million contract extension.

“I love the ice time. It’s finding the system,” Erskine said. “Oatsie lets us jump up in the play more because we’re safe about it, and it gives us more offensive chances.”

Holtby was particularly complimentary of the big defenseman’s recent play.

“He’s been playing outstanding for us. He’s the grit that we need back there,” Holtby said. “It’s good to see him get rewarded with a goal. Obviously, that’s not the focal point of his game, but he’s been playing outstanding.”

>> Speaking of Backstrom, Tuesday night might have been his best game of the season.

“He had a really good game,” Oates said. “I tried to take a couple minutes off him in the third when we got the third goal. But big goal for him and us early, got us going. Great play on Ersk’s goal.”

The perfect pass on the tape to set up Erskine’s goal was the type of set-up everyone has come to expect from the 25-year-old Swede. Meanwhile, his power-play goal in the first was anything but. Mucking it up in the crease isn’t Backstrom’s usual role on the power play, but it worked well enough against the Hurricanes and he cashed in on a deflection.

It wasn’t just the points, though. Backstrom had a consistent impact each time he was on the ice, whether helping to fuel the cycle, forcing Carolina turnovers or helping set up dangerous offensive chances for the Capitals. That’s a good sign, especially when Backstrom was questionable for the game after being ill on Monday.

>> Mike Green skated just 21:54 – his lowest single-game total this season — in his first game back in the lineup after missing three contests with a groin injury. Oates wanted to ease Green back into the game somewhat and, from the look of the balanced ice time throughout the lineup, he wanted to take advantage of the Capitals control of Tuesday’s game to even out the workload in the first half of back-to-backs. No one played more than John Carlson’s 22:30.

Green finished with two shots on goal, four blocked attempts and blocked three Carolina shots himself. He might not have been in full-flight much, but just his presence in the lineup makes it easier for Oates to balance the ice time of the defense as a whole.

“Not bad,” Oates said when asked to assess Green’s first game back. “One tough thing about that injury is you get time off, you don’t do any conditioning. So I thought all in all pretty good.”

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