The Capitals’ system is one of possession. When they’re at their best, they’re controlling the puck and are able to dictate the pace of a contest. One area where they’re hoping to see a little more consistency in helping to maintain that possession and keep plays alive is with defensive participation in the offensive zone.
This isn’t purely about points for individual blueliners or a defenseman jumping in on a rush. Rather, it’s how their role in sustaining plays by keeping the puck in the zone or creating another wave from the blueline is critical to the team’s ability to execute its game plan.
“That’s offense for us. There’s going to be breakdowns as the game goes along [that allow] the D to join the rush, but offense is in the offensive zone,” Coach Adam Oates said before the Capitals’ game in Vancouver Monday night. “It’s not easy because you’re standing still back there and you get a quick second because D zone coverage is deep, they’re coming at you and we need a good play.”
There have been glimpses of what it should look like on this road trip, like Joel Ward’s goal in Edmonton or Mikahil Grabovski’s in Winnipeg. On both plays, the forwards were able to establish possession down low and then had the defensemen extend the push.
Against the Jets, John Erskine knocked a bouncing puck back down low when Winnipeg threatened to clear and, seconds later, fired the shot that created mayhem in front to set up Grabovski’s goal. When the third line started the cycle in Edmonton, Jason Chimera kicked the puck back out to Karl Alzner at the point forcing the Oilers to spread out in their own zone. Alzner sent a pass over to John Carlson, who found a lane to put a shot on net that Ward deflected home.
The key in both sequences was the defense’s ability to make the play take another step forward.
“The puck can’t die there. The guys fight for it so hard in the corner, get it to the point, [the defensemen] need to buy time for the guys to get out of the corner and fight through the battles to get to the front of the net and that takes a period of time,” Oates said. The defensemen have “to look up, control the puck and if the guys are there great. If not throw it back down. Make good decisions. They’ve got a lot of responsibilities there, it’s not that easy a play.”
A defenseman’s contribution doesn’t need to lead directly to a goal. Simply a smart play to send the puck back down off the boards can be key in making a shift more taxing on the opponent. Realizing when to chip the puck ahead or look for a dump-in can be as important as finding a lane to put a shot on net.
“I think we’ve been doing a better job of noticing that, and when the guys are tired, not trying to make a home-run play so it comes out of the zone and ruins the 45 seconds that we already had going,” Carlson said. “But just hemming them in as much as possible, because it takes a toll on D and is better in the long run.”
If they can keep the play alive, the Capitals can continue to drain the energy of an opposing team’s ability to defend, even if they don’t score. Washington is quite familiar with the maddening, exhausting feeling that comes from being trapped in the defensive zone.
While it happens to every team at some point throughout the course of the game, the Capitals want it to become a more familiar occurrence for their opponents than it has been.
“We had more chips and dumps [in Edmonton] than we’ve had all year combined,” Alzner said. “I know what it’s like, I hate when a team keeps soft chipping into the corner, forechecking hard. It’s tough to get out, it’s frustrating. We want to be a puck possession team but we need to realize what we can do to keep that going.”