Washington Capitals defensemen struggle as team gets off to 0-2 start

Winnipeg scored two power-play goals to spoil the Caps home opener on Tuesday. The Caps fall to 0-2-0 on the season. (James Sherrill for Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC/The Washington Post)
January 23, 2013

Capitals defenseman John Carlson wanted to step up in the play, force the puck back into the offensive zone and hem the Winnipeg Jets in their own end without a line change in the middle of the second period Tuesday night.

But Carlson’s attempt to swipe the puck off Evander Kane’s stick was slightly off the mark, allowing the Jets winger to turn him inside out, flip a pass off the boards and blaze past him to set up Winnipeg’s third goal.

It was also the third tally against that Carlson played a part in. The first went off his skate after he didn’t challenge Kane on a bad angle shot and the second came while he sat in the penalty box for delay of game after firing the puck over the glass.

“It wasn’t my best but it’s not the end of the world,” Carlson said of his outing, and he’s certainly not alone. As the Capitals prepare for three games over the next four days beginning Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center, the team’s defensemen want to stop thinking about making the right play and just making it.

“Everybody’s trying to do the right thing but play it safe at the same time,” Carlson said. “And you should probably do one or the other, not both.”

Through two games the Capitals defense has been out of sorts. The defensemen struggle to clear their own zone, sometimes fail to take away an angle or option for an opponent, find themselves flat footed and are caught out of position. Against Winnipeg Tuesday, the Capitals were all but incapable of cutting off their foe’s possessions as the Jets outshot them 20-9 and recorded a pair of goals in the second period.

While some of the inconsistencies can be attributed to a transition period under a new coaching staff, the system isn’t terribly different from what they’ve played in the past. The problem, several blueliners say, is that they’re overthinking. Assistant coach Calle Johansson has noticed the problem from behind the bench.

“I think that’s why we maybe don’t have the flow that we really want. That’s a natural thing too when you have a lot of new stuff coming at you,” Johansson said. “You can’t play hockey when you think too much. That’s our job as coaches, to take that away and let them play hockey instead of think hockey.”

Weighing a decision too long, debating a coverage angle or misplacing a stick in a passing lane are all seemingly minor hiccups for a defenseman. But an extra second here or an inch the wrong way there can make the difference between preventing a scoring chance or a puck finding its way to the back of the net.

Roman Hamrlik, the team’s elder statesman, has played numerous systems for a multitude of coaches over his 19-year NHL career but admitted even he has caught himself making simple plays complicated. Washington’s most reliable stay-at-home defenseman, Karl Alzner, is also trying to get out of his head and back to his instincts.

“I definitely feel. . . almost like a fish out of water right now,” Alzner said Tuesday night. “Too busy trying to be in the right position mentally instead of just being there. I know where to be. I’m overthinking it; I think a lot of guys are probably in the same boat. In my opinion it’s easy to tell yourself, ‘Stop thinking and just play.’ I think that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Carlson said both he and Alzner believed they “didn’t really do all that we could” against the Jets. What’s being asked of them isn’t especially difficult, either, he added, and the important thing is for them and the rest of the defensemen to start playing with confidence again.

“The system’s there and it’s good,” Carlson said. “We just need to do the dirty work to get the puck where it needs to be.”

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