Capitals’ woes rooted in poor defensive play

October 17, 2013

New York Rangers center Derick Brassard fights off John Carlson for control of the puck in the first period at Verizon Center. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Washington has certainly struggled to produce offense consistently, particularly at even strength, through the first seven games of the season. But to focus only on the lack of goals is to ignore the root cause of the Capitals’ problems: their dysfunctional defensive-zone play.

The Capitals’ execution in their own end is a jumbled mess, riddled with costly turnovers and miscues, and it was no more evident than in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers.

In the second period against New York, the Capitals’ defensive woes combined to create what amounted to a menacing form of déjà vu on every shift.

A failed clearing attempt, sometimes two, would trap the Capitals in their own end to commence an ineffective chase sequence. The Rangers would zip the puck around and back out to the point for quick shots and then recover rebounds, with Washington’s players falling a step behind at each juncture. Shifts would drag on, with the Capitals unable to establish possession long enough to end the threat, and it seemed only a matter of time before a goal would be allowed.

“You’ve got to get it out first,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Every team has five guys in front of you. You’ve got to cross them, you can’t just be pretty.”

Part of the problem, according to defenseman Karl Alzner, is that the Capitals are getting ahead of themselves with offensive aspirations and losing sight of the need to first take care of business defensively.

“We want to have possession, we want to be an offensive team, we have a lot of firepower, but we’re focusing a little bit too much on the offense, I think, sometimes, and we forget about getting out of our zone first,” Alzner said. “What’s the old cliche? Defense wins championships? Right now, we’re trying to win with just offense.”

Goaltender Braden Holtby was equally frustrated.

“If we play like that, we’re not going to win games,” Holtby said. “Simple as that.”

There isn’t a single player who hasn’t erred in his own zone. While mistakes happen, they’re occurring in rapid succession and far too frequently for the Capitals to minimize the damage.

Take the second Rangers goal. John Carlson followed Ryan Callahan into the left corner, where the New York captain played the puck behind the net as the Carlson finished his check. But upon contact, Callahan turned back toward the net a stride ahead of Carlson. As Callahan raced toward the front of the net, Alex Urbom didn’t put any pressure on Brad Richards before the veteran playmaker could send a feed to the crease.

Callahan was able to swat the puck out of mid air and into the net with Carlson still giving chase. Alex Ovechkin was also in the slot, but aside from a one-handed swipe of his stick did little to impede Callahan’s progress. By the time Callahan scored the goal, Carlson, along with Urbom and forwards Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom, had been on the ice for a 1 minute, 19 second shift.

“I think Carly lost him there and I think they were tired. The shift had been a long one, we had two chances to get it out and it bit us,” Oates said.

Asked what he wants to see cleaned up the most, the Capitals coach cited proper support and smart decision making.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a coverage breakdown, but we could be a little more aggressive, close in on guys and have the second man getting in there, winning some battles and then knowing what to do with the puck when we get it,” Oates said. “I think a lot of times we get that first play and then we don’t put it in the right spot to keep guys going in the right direction.”

Oates’s point is well taken as the Capitals often have opportunities to save themselves the damaging, lengthy rat races in their own end. But when presented with possession or an opportunity to clear the puck out of the zone, they’re making complex plays rather than getting it over the blue line any way possible.

The Rangers used a high flip into the neutral zone to successfully clear their own zone multiple times Wednesday night. That’s a play that is part of the Capitals’ repertoire, but they didn’t use it, or even attempt it.

When things are as haphazard defensively as they were against the Rangers, there’s no good reason why Washington shouldn’t simply be trying to move the puck up ice any way possible, even if it’s not a perfect play.

“You see bits and pieces of it when we’re playing good; we can break the puck out clean. But the thing to remember is it doesn’t always have to be clean, it just has to be out,” Alzner said. “If it doesn’t get out, you spend a minute and a half in your zone, like we did [against New York].

“I guess it’s just recognizing the times where we’ve got to live to fight another day, and we haven’t been doing that enough.”

>> Capitals winger Troy Brouwer avoided a suspension for his collision with New York center Derek Stepan early in the third period of Wednesday night’s loss. Brouwer said he didn’t intend to hit or come into contact with Stepan’s head on the play, and league officials saw it the same way. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety “viewed the play as an accidental collision,” according to a league source.

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Katie Carrera · October 17, 2013

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